CHARLES TOWN – As many as 1,200 children in Jefferson County could be considered homeless under a broad federal definition of the term, and coordinating the work of about six dozen government and charity social services efforts can better address the problem.
That’s an overarching observation and a top recommendation in a report issued by local officials who studied how to “render homelessness a rare and brief event” in the county.
The 17-page report was issued last week by the Mayor’s Select Committee on Homelessness, a temporary advisory panel of 10 people that Charles Town Mayor Bob Trainor assembled.
“Many of the elements necessary to address the causes and effects of homelessness more adequately are already in existence,” states the committee’s report, the product of 20 months of research and discussions. “However, the efforts of our local service providers, while selfless and often border on heroic, are not adequately coordinated, resulting in lesser returns that should be expected for the effort.”
The Select Committee’s report suggests that county and municipal government funds be pooled together to hire a person to help coordinate the activities of homeless and affordable housing programs among various government and nonprofit groups in the county and the Eastern Panhandle. A major responsibility for the social services liaison position would be applying for state, federal and private grant funding to support efforts to prevent homelessness.
“There are resources available,” Trainor said. “One of the key components of what we have to do is we have to better coordinate all these resources to make sure they’re applied to the people who need them most for the people here in Jefferson County.”
In addition to creating a county job to coordinate existing programs and services, expanding the number of affordable housing options is another significant focus of the Select Committee’s report. County and municipal officials should explore new building and development incentives that promote the construction of more housing that lower-income workers and households can afford. Creating more emergency and subsidized housing units to supplement federal rent subsidies with new local subsidies is also a goal outlined in the report.
The committee report includes several other recommendations for government officials and civic groups to consider. One of the report’s ideas includes establishing a Neighborhood Ambassador program, where citizens in need of jobs would be paid to perform “community improvement” tasks such as street cleaning, snow shoveling and landscaping public property in the county’s municipal downtowns. Municipal police chiefs are prepared to work with the ambassadors to enhance their community policing and public safety activities, the report states.
Another idea includes paying people now volunteering as emergency winter shelter workers, social services caseworkers and transportation providers. Paying people who now perform those functions as volunteers would provide stability and certainty to programs serving the homeless. For example, Jefferson County Community Ministries (JCCM), a faith-based nonprofit serving the homeless and poor with various charity services, has had difficulty finding volunteers to serve as overnight monitors for the county’s seasonal cold weather shelter.
The report lists specific government agencies and nonprofit organizations in the county or region that assist poor and homeless individuals and families, from food pantries to job training groups to health care providers. The list is designed as a Community of Care Network for county officials and residents to use to provide help to an individual or family in need of housing or other assistance, the mayor said.
All told, the report cites a goal to obtain more than $250,000 in annual funding for newly created paid positions and for existing programs. The annual funding demand would increase over time, as with inflation.
As a “frontline” assistance provider to homeless and low-income people, JCCM would receive $140,000 of that proposed new annual funding if all of the report’s recommendations are fulfilled. The report notes that JCCM is projected to operate this year with an $80,000 shortfall “and will require a like supplement in the future to be able to provide the current level of services.”
The committee’s proposed spending breaks down this way:
New social services liaison position — $75,000. The committee’s report proposes establishing the full-time position as a county employee who would serve under the county government’s chief administrator.
New caseworker or “diversion specialist” position — $60,000. JCCM and its West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness affiliation would oversee the full-time position to help people obtain various available assistance through government programs.
A Housing Buy-Down fund — $36,000. Create a locally funded program to subsidize the $794 maximum federal housing payments to allow for 10 “rapid rehousing” apartments and five long-term apartment rentals. The goal would be to increase the number of locally subsidized housing units over time.
Paying shelter volunteers — $30,000. Providing three full-time and two part-time JCCM workers to supervise overnight shifts at a JCCM seasonal cold weather shelter.
Funding emergency motel housing — $25,000. This existing JCCM program provides critical emergency motel housing, often to people who are too sick or unable to use other shelter alternatives.
Transportation support program — $25,000. This existing JCCM program provides low-income families with bus tickets for certain trips or with money to pay for emergency car repairs. That funding would also be used to help JCCM purchase vehicles that volunteers would use to transport people to jobs, among other possible trips.
Neighborhood Ambassador program — no funding for wages identified. This proposed program would hire people served by JCCM to provide a visible positive presence in the county’s various municipal downtowns. In addition to serving welcoming and safety monitoring roles, the ambassadors would take over janitorial, beautification and landscaping tasks that would improve the downtowns. Some of the ambassador services could be provided voluntarily to promote civic responsibility, and other workers might be paid, according to the report.
“The idea is still in its conceptual stages,” Trainor acknowledged of the ambassador program recommendation.
Key county and municipal officials in Jefferson are aware of the committee’s early ideas, recommendations and goals, Trainor said, although more discussion needs to occur. A meeting with county officials is planned next week to discuss whether county government funding might pay for the social services liaison position, he said.
“Everybody wants to work together to fix the problem, to help our less fortunate neighbors,” Trainor said. “Everybody is willing to join together and actually address the problem in a humane way and help folks get through these issues that they may have.”
Trainor formed the Select Committee in September 2019 to study and permanently address homelessness after highly visible groups of homeless people were gathering in — and occasionally disrupting — downtown Charles Town. At the time, used syringes started appearing in alleyways while some homeless were using public spaces as bathrooms. When some residents began saying they felt uncomfortable going downtown and patronizing businesses, that became another factor that spurred the mayor to form the select committee.
Trainor acknowledged those groups of homeless have since gone elsewhere and that he didn’t know where. However, he said the problem of homelessness generally remains an issue for many individuals and families throughout Jefferson County.