There’s no shelter in Jackson County. How does that play out with poverty, homelessness?
Felisha and David Scott once broke into a building at the Riverfront Park in Ravenswood and wrapped themselves up in bubble wrap. With the bubble wrap on, the couple huddled together to keep warm on a chilly winter night.
They always dreaded winter during the three years they lived as a homeless couple. From 2014 to 2017 they would hide under bridges by the Ohio River and set up camp in the woods.
Hooked on drugs, neither of them had a job during that dark period in their lives. They sold drugs to make ends meet.
One day they woke up and decided to put the needles down. They walked from Jackson County to Gauley Bridge. That's where Felisha Scott's dad lived. It took them two days to get there. For food, they snatched vegetables out of gardens.
People laughed in their faces when they said they were going to get clean.
Now, they own a house, multiple vehicles, work full-time and help run Broken Chains, a ministry that helps homeless people in addiction.
Jackson County’s poverty rate is 16.7%, more than two times higher than the projected 7.7% national average, according to the 2020 Census. With the county’s population sitting at 28,576, people in poverty make up nearly 4,800 of its residents.
The two public housing complexes in the county could accommodate up to 484 people in its 145 units. There are no homeless shelters in the county.
The heart of Jackson County is a 40-minute drive to Charleston, a 45-minute drive to Parkersburg and a 40-minute drive to Point Pleasant. That’s where the closest shelters are located.
The urge to help, overwhelmed by the numbers
The Scotts were once part of the drug problem in Jackson County, and now they have dedicated their lives to helping people who are looking to start over. They have housed 10 people since coming clean in 2017.
A person to whom David once sold drugs has been sober for months, has a job and is saving up money to rent his own place. It's coming full circle for the Scotts. They said not everyone who has stayed with them made it out of addiction and some went back to the streets.
They aren’t the only people in Jackson County who see a problem.
The Jackson County Ministerial Association has a space in the Harrison Building in downtown Ripley, but that’s typically for one-night stays. When people crash there, a pastor will often transport the person or family to a homeless shelter the next day.
The association has been around since the 1960s. It formed from two outreach programs. One was a clerical program with the county hospital. The other involved helping homeless people and transients.
Chris Skeens, the association’s president, said the transient ministry has adapted since the 1960s. The organization used to pay for a hotel room for people in need. Skeens said that stopped decades ago.
Closest shelters are at least a day’s walk away
Rich Whipkey, housing manager for the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter in Parkersburg, said he usually gets 10 to 20 homeless people from Jackson County in his shelter annually.
Felisha and David stayed at Whipkey's shelter in 2017. That's where they got sober, and within 90 days, they were moving into their first apartment in Ravenswood.
One time, when the hills were covered in a sea of autumnal color, a person walked into the shelter. They were from Jackson County. They didn’t have transportation, so they hiked all the way there.
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Whipkey said the person didn’t have any camping gear. They walked in with the clothes on their back and nothing else. He has no idea how long it took that person to reach the shelter.
“I couldn’t fathom someone walking that far,” Whipkey said.
His shelter once held 42 people each night, but things have changed since the pandemic began. With COVID-19 regulations, Whipkey can only house 16 people per night. He constantly has to look people in the eyes and tell them they can’t stay there.
“It’s not a nice feeling,” Whipkey said. “You always want to help everyone that you can.”
The odds against many: Nearly 1 in 5 Jackson County residents live in poverty
The Housing Choice Voucher is for people 18 or older who rent or want to rent from a private landlord and meet income criteria to receive rental assistance. The assistance targets low-income people in need of housing. People who qualify for public housing are put on the waiting list.
Jackson County Housing Authority Director Kristin Fisher said the organization doesn’t release waitlist times for its public housing units.
As of Sept. 30, nearly 240 people were on the waitlist for a one-bedroom apartment, 124 were waiting for a two-bedroom, 24 were waiting for a three-bedroom and 20 were waiting for a four-bedroom unit.
For someone who works a minimum-wage job making $8.75 per hour, they’d have to work 55 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom rental house at fair market value, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Nearly a quarter of Jackson County’s population rents. The fair market rent for a one-bedroom is $593; $676 for a two-bedroom; $947 for a three-bedroom; and $1,046 for a four-bedroom.
There are two public housing complexes in Jackson County, both in Ripley. Tanglewood Villa has 74 one-bedroom units and Rolling Meadow Village has 10 one-bedrooms, 29 two-bedrooms, 28 three-bedrooms and all the county’s four-bedrooms.
Poverty has a direct link to homelessness
According to the American Psychological Association, extreme poverty is the “strongest predictor of homelessness in families.” Families who spend more than 50% of its monthly income on rent or experience a foreclosure are highly at-risk of homelessness.
More than 270,000 West Virginians lived below the poverty line in 2019, making it the sixth highest poverty-stricken state in America, according to West Virginia Policy.
Every year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a point-in-time count. This is where people from across the country search their communities for people experiencing homelessness.
Renee DeLong, Jackson County representative for the Family Resource Network, has participated in the count for years. It’s held for a 24-hour period in January. People who are homeless but couch surfing with a friend or family member aren’t considered homeless for the count. To be considered in the count, the individual must provide some information like name and date of birth.
Most people decline to provide that information.
“The count, to me, sets everybody up to fail,” DeLong said. “If you don't actually find them and gather some information, it’s like they don't exist.”
The count never provides an accurate picture of the homeless population, DeLong said. Many homeless people DeLong has encountered have expressed that they don’t want to ask for help because they’re scared of facing judgment.
Skeens, who is one of the first people called every time someone needs to use the Harrison Building for a night, said a homeless shelter would be a helpful resource for Jackson County. The ministerial association can only do so much.
Felisha and David are constantly trying to raise awareness about the homeless population in Jackson County, but they feel like their voices aren’t heard. They’re frustrated.
Dick Waybright, the Jackson County Commission president, said he’s never heard of a request to establish a homeless shelter in Jackson County. He’s been a member of the county’s governing board for 10 years.
The commission considers projects that aren’t requested by the public if there is worry or issues at hand, but that hasn’t been the case with the homeless situation.
But people like the Scotts, Skeens and DeLong will continue to serve the homeless population of Jackson County with the hopes of someday taking a deep breath and knowing there’s a place for them to sleep at night.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.