Laura Jones worked for Milan Puskar Health Right in the spring of 2003, when the nonprofit clinic packed up and moved from 154 Pleasant St. to its current Spruce Street location.
“That was the most stressful time I’ve ever been through and I swore that I would never move Health Right again,” she recalled.
Never say never.
Now Health Right’s executive director, Jones is preparing for an even bigger move.
In September, the city of Morgantown came to Health Right with an offer — move the Spruce Street clinic and the Friendship House out of downtown by March 31, 2023, and the city will provide $800,000 in American Rescue Plan money to purchase new property and assist in the move.
The Friendship House is Health Right’s mental health drop-in center, at 231 Walnut St.
Two months later, the Monongalia County Commission added $200,000 to assist with the relocation and future programming.
“Moving was really not on our radar. What had been on our radar was the reality that we are in an aging building that needs some work. So when the city offered us the opportunity to use ARPA money, we didn’t really have a lot of time to make the decision,” Jones said. “We started right away — board meetings, executive committee meetings — and essentially we decided that it was in our best interest and the city’s best interest to move up to this new space and build on.”
Health Right purchased a 6,000 square-foot building near Hazel’s House of Hope, a social services hub about four miles away from the city’s downtown, off Scott Avenue. The plan is to build on an additional 2,000 to 2,500 square feet before moving in.
Despite being smaller than its current 10,000 square-foot home, Jones said the new building is configured in a way that would better accommodate Health Right’s ultimate goal of becoming a licensed behavioral health center.
“The other thing that it will allow us to do is, hopefully … is to be able to put in two dental chairs and all the equipment we would need to provide dental care for free for people who don’t have insurance, or people with Medicaid, if necessary,” Jones said. “We’re working with the WVU School of Dentistry and they’ve said they’d need about 500 square feet.”
While the clinic’s new home is secured, Jones said a new location for the Friendship House is not.
She said Health Right is looking at a location about a mile outside of the downtown business district. While the location would be walkable, the relocation of both the clinic and the drop-in center would come in conjunction with a new full-time van service that will assist in getting clients where they need to go.
The idea of remaining accessible while moving out of the downtown is part of what made the decision to go so difficult.
Jones said she recognizes the city’s desire to improve the business climate downtown, and admits replacing a nonprofit with a tax-generating business in a prime location on Spruce Street would help do that.
Asked if she felt the intent of the offer was to get Health Right’s clients away from the downtown, and therefore out of sight, Jones points out that only 10-15% of the people using the nonprofit’s services are unhoused.
“I can’t be 100% sure why the city made this offer … I do believe there is some motivation on that level, but that’s the whole community’s motivation, not just the city’s — to establish services up where Hazel’s House of Hope is,” Jones said.
“But I don’t think most of us believe that by moving us out there that some of our clients are not going to be downtown. I just don’t think that’s a reasonable, realistic thought. Every community in the United States has been grappling with the situation of homelessness and it’s an incredibly complex issue. Just moving us and Friendship House to a new location is not necessarily going to solve that problem.”
Last year, Milan Puskar Health Right’s medical clinic had thousands of appointments and drop-ins from 1,447 individuals. Friendship House served more than 400 people and the harm reduction needle exchange program served more than 1,000 unduplicated clients. All told, Health Right’s various programs had more than 24,000 contacts across multiple counties.
While Jones said she loves the new, tree-lined location outside the city, making the move is starting to make her nervous — primarily because of the overwhelming need indicated by the figures listed above.
“When you’re in the business of providing healthcare, the one thing you don’t want to do is lose the quality of your care while you’re trying to do all these things. We’re going to have a point at which we’re going to start moving things out and I think it’s going to be a challenge,” she said. “We want to make sure our patients get taken care of. We don’t want any gap, although we know we might have to be closed for a few days.”