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Lewis: Location of warming shelter not an attempt to hide city’s homeless population

MORGANTOWN — Janette Lewis agrees Hazel’s House of Hope, some four miles from the city’s downtown, is not the ideal location for Morgantown’s emergency warming shelter.

That, she said, is why special attention has been paid to the critical issue of transportation – from expanded Mountain Line service to the site coupled with free bus passes, to funding overtime for Friendship House personnel who provide evening rides, to a team of volunteers ready to not only provide after-hours transportation, but actively seek folks out if need be.

Where Lewis disagrees is with recent claims that the warming shelter was placed in the Scott Avenue facility in an attempt to get the city’s unhoused hidden from view.

“That really bothered me,” she said, referencing public comments offered during a recent Morgantown City Council session. “Because it’s so far from the truth.”

Lewis, the community impact director with United Way of Monongalia and Preston Counties, has helped organize warming shelters the last four winters.

She said finding a location, particularly downtown, with a landlord willing to take on the insurance liability and a space up to code with adequate restrooms and facilities is not easy, or cheap.

The first and last private entity to take it on was the Spruce Street United Methodist Church, in winter 2019-’20. In the last four years the warming shelter has also been at Bartlett Housing Solutions’ old University Avenue location and Caritas House, also on Scott Avenue.

“We’ve asked. It’s not like we haven’t tried. We want it downtown. If I could set [Hazel’s House of Hope] downtown, I would, but we can’t,” Lewis said, explaining that the Scott Avenue hub for social services may not be in the perfect location, but it eliminates the annual stress of finding a location.

 Further, she said, the offerings there far exceed those of any previous locations.

“It’s still cold in the morning. It doesn’t magically get warm at 7 a.m. Now, we don’t have to make people leave during the day. People can stay,” Lewis said. “We have a day room there. We have options. We’ve never had that anywhere else. There’s brunch served there. Dinner is served there. There are case managers and recovery coaches employed there to work with folks if they want.”

Lewis said the overflow warming shelter hasn’t been needed thus far as Bartlett House has had adequate space in its shelter to accommodate the need.

She said individuals who use the facility are asked to sign up for the Homeless Management Information System. That, she said, gets the person in the system and in line for housing/services and helps agencies prove local need when it’s time for state and federal dollars to be doled out.

It does not flag individuals based on immigration status or based on things like outstanding warrants.

“There’s no sharing that data. That information is used only to get people housed. Nobody cares if they have felonies or whatever background. This is to get them housed and get the services they need to get them on their feet,” she said. “They can also refuse those services. Nobody is forcing anything on anyone. Nobody is forced to sign anything. They can still stay here.”

But there are rules. Drug use is not permitted and a 10 p.m. quiet time is enforced.

Last year, the  warming shelter received $40,000 in federal emergency shelter funding. Lewis said this was the first year in her tenure that no funds were received as those dollars were diverted to immigration and border issues.

Morgantown City Council picked up much of that slack, allocating up to $30,000 for the shelter. The Monongalia County Commission threw in another $10,000, with the promise of more, if needed.

The building and 10-acre property was itself essentially a gift to social services, Lewis said. It was provided to WVU Medicine by Mark Nesselroad and the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust.

The old Ramada Inn building is owned by nonprofit Morgantown Community Resources and was made fit for purpose using $3.5 million in CARES Act funding.  

It’s currently the home of  United Way, Bartlett Housing Solutions, The Salvation Army and the future home of a sobering center, among other services. Milan Puskar Health Right is gearing up to move next door.

“Is it perfect right now? No. But we’re on our way, and it certainly isn’t about getting people away from downtown. We just have to have somewhere for people to go to keep from freezing. We know transportation is a problem, but I think we have a good solution,” Lewis said. “If we all work together, and we are – we have a wonderful community – but we can only build and improve on it. Next year, we won’t have to struggle to try to find a solution. We’ll have it in place and ready to go.”

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