Frequently asked questions

How many people in Morgantown and Monongalia County are homeless?

Homelessness in our area is measured each January when we participate in the nationwide “Point-in-Time Count.” During a 24-hour period we try to locate and survey every individual in Mon County who is experiencing homelessness, providing a snapshot of homelessness on that particular date. Our counts identified 123 persons in 2012, 120 persons in 2013, and 88 persons l in 2014. This year, the count conducted during last week of January identified 83 persons.

I’ve noticed people downtown who are usually on the street. Are they all homeless?

Not everyone we see regularly on the streets is homeless. Some of them have housing but do not work regularly, often because of mental or physical disabilities. They gather downtown because they do not have the money to gather in restaurants, clubs, or other places of entertainment. Some are chronically homeless. Nationwide the number of chronically homeless represent only 15-20% of the total homeless population; however, here in Morgantown, about 40% are chronically homeless. Therefore, they are the highest priority for housing.

Why are there so many persons who are homeless here? Why isn’t more being done?

The main cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing. Housing in Morgantown is very expensive. The rent for a small apartment comes very close to the entire income of someone living on Social Security Disability. There are housing subsidies available under the Section 8 program of HUD. However, there are far too few for our population. Mon County has the highest unmet need for low-income housing of any county in the state - twice the rate of the next highest.

However, our rate of homelessness in Morgantown is actually not that high. Our last count was 83 persons in Mon County. Judged against a population of 30,000 just in the city, that is not particularly high. Our homelessness, however, is very visible for at least three reasons.

First, many of the people hanging out on the street are not homeless. The have places to live but come downtown to hang out. Having little disposable income, they cannot socialize at a restaurant or a basketball game. They have to do what is free. Or they come to panhandle or to buy or sell drugs. So what appears to be homelessness often is not - maybe as many as half of the people seen regularly downtown are not homeless.

Secondly, a very significant portion of people experiencing homelessness here are chronically homeless - most all of whom are not in any position to work for a living, most likely never will be. So they are downtown.

And thirdly, the downtown area is quite small, only 4 or 5 blocks including High Street from Willey to Pleasant, one block on Walnut, and one on Spruce St. When 20 or 30 people are in that area, they are very visible. And there really isn't any other place for them to gather. No other part of town has any of the services they need on a regular basis, and moving any services to other parts of town would not work because of transportation and the need for people to avail themselves of several services each day. The key is finding housing for people, especially for those chronically homeless.

How many families and children are affected by homelessness?

Families and children experiencing homelessness are temporarily housed, primarily through the Bartlett House, our local shelter. Currently there are 20 children living in shelters. At least 75 more children are unstably housed in temporary quarters—living in motels, staying with various relatives, or sharing space with two or three other families. This housing instability has a profound impact on these children’s lives and educations.

I am sometimes asked for money. How should I respond to panhandling?

On the basis of our experience working with Morgantown’s homeless population for many years, we would suggest this approach: “Don’t give money; give yourself.”

Because of the generosity of the people of our community, we have many fine support services for persons experiencing homelessness: at least two free meals every day of the week; a free health clinic; free clothing, household items and appliances; free groceries; and emergency services, including assistance with rent, utility bills, transportation, and prescription costs. With all of this support available, it is rare for anyone in our community to need money for food or emergencies.

Therefore, those of us in the service agencies strongly urge the public not to give money to anyone who requests it on the streets of Morgantown or the highways around town. In many (perhaps most) cases the money won’t be spent on the stated purpose at all, and your compassionate donations won’t help people to improve their situation.

“Don’t give money; give yourself.” Stop and talk to people who ask for help. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee and listen to their story. In many cases they may decline, but in other cases you may begin a meaningful relationship with someone you would otherwise never get to know.

If you still want to help financially, all of the area agencies can use your financial support, as well as your volunteer time.

I’ve been hearing about “Housing First.” What is it?

Traditionally, people experiencing chronic homelessness were expected to address the issues associated with their homelessness, such as mental illness or addictions, before receiving housing. With Housing First, the priority is to quickly move people into appropriate housing, and then, from the stability and safety of a home, begin to work on the issues that contributed to their homelessness.

Giving people a home, even if they are addicted and mentally ill, is sometimes viewed as being wrong and wasteful. But the opposite is actually true: Housing First saves money. Homelessness is very expensive to the community. Emergency room visits, police services, emergency shelters, and addiction services add up quickly.

Locally, a recent study by WVU’s School of Public Health revealed that in the fiscal year 2012-2013, Ruby Memorial Hospital absorbed more than $1.6 million dollars in un-reimbursed medical costs for persons who were homeless at the time of their admission. With a fraction of that money, we could end homelessness in Mon County. [R. David Parker, Michael Regier, Zach Brown and Stephen Davis, “An Inexpensive, Interdisciplinary, Methodology to Conduct an Impact Study of Homeless Persons on Hospital Based Services,” Journal of Community Health, June 2014.

Across the country, data reveals the financial savings generated by the policy of Housing First. For instance, in Salt Lake City, Utah, under the traditional approach, each chronically homeless person used to cost the city an average of more than $20,000 a year. Housing those people at public expense costs the state only $8,000, including the cost of social workers to support the tenants. The same is true elsewhere. A Colorado study found that housing a homeless person reduced the average cost from $43,000 a year to just $17,000. Similar savings have been reported by many other communities and states.

Housing First is now accepted policy for programs funded by the federal government, most state programs, and many local communities, including our own.

I have seen signs around town saying “Zero: 2016.” What is that?

“Zero: 2016" is a nation-wide movement aimed at ending veteran homelessness by December 31, 2015, and all chronic homelessness by December 31, 2016. This effort includes 71 communities, coordinated by Community Solutions, a national nonprofit based in New York City. The initiative is a rigorous follow-on to the group's successful 100,000 Homes Campaign, in which Morgantown was one of 186 communities which housed 105,000 chronically homeless Americans in under four years. Morgantown was selected for Zero: 2016 through a competitive, national application process.

Are these goals of ending veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness in the next two years realistic?

Absolutely. Our most recent data indicates approximately a half dozen veterans in our area who are homeless. The Veterans Administration, in cooperation with HUD, has significantly increased the financial support available to veterans. Housing the few homeless veterans in our community is certainly within our capabilities. For persons who have been experiencing chronic homelessness, the Bartlett House’s West Run facility will soon open three dozen new units dedicated especially for them. With the availability of these units and our increasing success at coordinated, community-wide efforts, finding housing for all our chronically homeless individuals is a very attainable goal.

Who is involved in addressing homelessness in our community?

Twenty different agencies participate in the work to address homelessness. In addition, many faith communities offer food and other services. All of these agencies seek to align their work in a cooperative effort under the leadership of the Coordinating Council on Homelessness. The Council not only coordinates the work of the service agencies, but also works with government entities, business, faith communities, university departments, and private citizens in order to focus our community’s efforts in ways that will be most effective and most efficient.