Kathy McMurray, chair of the Upshur County Homelessness and Housing Coalition and the executive director of Mountain CAP addresses Buckhannon City Council at their May 4 meeting. / Photo by Katie Kuba

Upshur County selected to partake in West Virginia Coalition to end homelessness initiative

BUCKHANNON – Upshur is one of several north-central West Virginia counties the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness is targeting in its efforts to alleviate homelessness.

Lauren Frederick, the Continuum of Care Director for the state Coalition to End Homelessness, said Upshur County – along with Barbour, Randolph and Lewis counties – has been selected to take part in an initiative called ‘Built for Zero.’

Frederick addressed Buckhannon City Council remotely at its May 4 meeting to explain what Built for Zero is and how community entities can effectively work together to combat the complex issues that result in homelessness. Mountain CAP Executive Director Kathy McMurray, chair of the Upshur County Homelessness and Housing Coalition, was also on hand for the presentation, which came on the heels of several city residents sharing growing concerns about homelessness and vagrancy at a council meeting in March.

What is ‘Built for Zero’?

The Built for Zero initiative was developed by Community Solutions, a national organization that works to end homelessness using data-driven methods to change how systems that respond to homeless work. The goal of Built for Zero is to achieve a homeless population that can be described as ‘functional zero.’ Frederick said functional zero in West Virginia would mean less than three people qualify as chronically homeless across the 44 counties the W.Va. Coalition to End Homelessness serves.

“Functional zero means that systems are in place to continuously end homelessness at a population level, ensuring that any experience of homelessness is rare and brief,” she said.

People are classified as chronically homeless when they have been homeless for one year or longer or four times in the last three years, equivalent to a one-year period and have a disability that falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act or a substance use disorder. Frederick likened functional zero to a hospital system that doesn’t guarantee that people won’t ever get sick but “ensures people are triaged appropriately, promptly receive the services they need.”

Homelessness in Upshur County

A point-in-time count conducted by Mountain CAP and the Coalition to End Homelessness in January 2023 found that there were a total of 27 homeless people in Upshur County, five of whom were experiencing chronic homelessness and one of whom was a veteran. Statewide, the point-in-time count found 767 homeless people, 154 of whom qualified as chronically homeless and 44 of whom were veterans.

Frederick emphasized the point-in-time count represents just one night and is a small snapshot of the overall picture of homelessness. It’s used to calculate the minimum amount of funding a state would need to end homelessness in their areas.

“Obviously, most of those people would have been unsheltered or in a hotel because you guys do not have a designated emergency shelter in your area,” she said. “This number does encompass those that are from Upshur County who might be staying in a domestic violence shelter in another county.”

Additional data indicates that as of March 2023 in Upshur County, there were 20 people who were experiencing homelessness, three of whom qualify as chronically homeless – and most of those people are from here. Frederick said there’s a common misconception that homeless people “are coming from somewhere else,” but that’s not true.

“For Upshur County, 73 percent of people experiencing homelessness are from Upshur County or have resided in your county for a year or longer, so the majority of people experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness in your community are from here and they are our neighbors,” she said. “That changes the mindset when you’re really working with the community on, ‘How do we address this scenario?’”

According to statewide data, in West Virginia, someone working a minimum-wage job would have to work 57 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, Frederick added.

How to help mitigate homelessness

One of the key avenues for reducing homelessness in a region is to develop a shared aim that organizations, governmental entities, businesses and residents can buy into.

“I do this work because I believe that in a developed country, no one should be sleeping outside on a park bench,” Frederick said, “but I am not here to change opinions or hearts. I am here to find a common goal, and I think we can all agree that nobody wants to see homelessness in their community, whether that be for business reasons or whether that’s because they just care about humanity. The common goal is that we do not want individuals on our streets. We want them to be in housing.”

Designating a go-to team to orchestrate outreach efforts, maintaining a comprehensive real-time, by-name database, and trying to facilitate strategic, affordable housing investments are also paramount to mitigating homelessness.

Frederick said residents can help by reaching out and engaging stakeholders in the health care, behavioral health and justice sectors in the area as well as fostering community connections.

“Take the county, for instance — we know that they do pay for individuals who are floating in and out of our justice system,” Frederick said. “It’s costly for your community to have people sleeping outside; it’s costly for your justice system, your health care system, and it actually costs your community four times more to leave somebody outside and not provide them services than to house them and pay for their housing for a year with the cost, again, of uncovered medical expenses, ER visits and being in and out of jail – so it’s actually costing us more not to do anything.”

What causes homelessness in the first place?

Frederick says the narrative surrounding why homelessness happens needs to be changed, and local residents can help.

“It’s a breakdown of our social systems, which ultimately leads to homelessness, whether it’s systems that deal with mental health, substance use disorder, health care, justice, education or child welfare,” she said. “Yes, some people use substances, but some people have mental illnesses. Some folks are experiencing domestic violence, or they had a traumatic event or large medical expenses that led them to be homeless, but ultimately, all those systems that are in place to keep people from becoming homeless have failed them.”

Mayor Robbie Skinner said he, along with commission president Kristie Tenney, city recorder Randy Sanders, city police chief Matt Gregory, Lt. Doug Loudin and city fire chief J.B. Kimble have been attending Upshur County Homelessness and Housing Coalition meetings since the issue surfaced at council meeting in March.

“Those meetings have been very informative,” Skinner said. “It’s not all a result of drug abuse. This is multi-faceted; it’s a complex issue, and mental health plays such a role in it as well. Basically, if we don’t work to find a solution, we’re either paying for it on the incarceration end, which I think we are all of the belief that we cannot arrest ourselves out of this – that’s not the solution.”

The meetings take place the second Wednesday of every month – with the exception of May – at the Parish House.

Frederick encouraged anyone who wants to get involved to contact her via email at laurenfrederick@wvceh.org or by cellphone at 304-282-6330.

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