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‘If this community cannot solve this problem, then no community can’

MORGANTOWN — Janette Lewis said this winter’s warming shelter experience has demonstrated the overwhelming level of need for low-barrier shelters as an option for unhoused individuals in the Morgantown community.

Lewis is the community impact director for United Way of Monongalia and Preston Counties. She helped organize and raise the funds needed to run the warming shelter at Hazel’s House of Hope (H3) from Dec. 1 to March 15.

The shelter, which closed for the season on Wednesday, was averaging more than 60 individuals nightly while working in conjunction with more-established alternatives like Bartlett House.

As of late February, there were some 160 local individuals with active files in the Homeless Management Information System used by social service organizations.

“We’ve proven that we need this for sure now, right? Is that really still a question?” Lewis asked.

The scheduled closure of the warming shelter comes about two weeks after Friendship House shut its doors after nearly 60 years operating as a daytime drop-in center. For much of the past three months, the two facilities have functioned as a kind of dual-site operation, with one open during the day and the other available evenings, overnight and on weekends.

Now both are closed.

“So now what do we do?” Lewis asked. “We’re very concerned.”

It appears answering that question will require answering several others.

What kind of facility/facilities are needed? Should it be limited to winter warming shelter(s) or available year-round? Should it just be available at night or around the clock in order to provide a day-center option?

Where would such a facility be located?

Lewis is certain any future warming shelters, or likely any type of permanent day center, won’t be in H3.

“We’ve worn out our welcome here,” she said.

Becky Rodd, who ran the warming shelter day-to-day, agreed.

“Hazel’s House, because of all the things they’re doing and how important community perception is to them and some of the backlash, I think it would be hard for them to take this on again,” Rodd said. “The backlash has had an impact and the number of people we’re seeing is large. The folks involved with Hazel’s House are concerned about that.”

In addition to public perception, there are legitimate concerns about housing a shelter available to individuals in active addiction in the same facility as organizations like Lauren’s Wish, which operates an addiction recovery triage center at H3.

Beyond all that — even if you identify the type of facilities you want to provide, facilities to house it and a way to fund it, somebody has to oversee it.

One of the immediate lessons of the warming shelter this winter is that such work is too much to ask of untrained volunteers.

“It’s very intense work. We thought we could run it with volunteers mostly, but getting volunteers who are comfortable working with this population is difficult,” Rodd said. “We worked with people who are actively psychotic, people under the influence of drugs, people who are medically compromised and need help getting up the stairs. You’ve got to have staff who are trained in managing this. You can’t just hire a bunch of students.”

Getting a an organization in place to run a shelter program will be central to any plan going forward, Lewis said, explaining meetings are planned in the coming weeks with various agencies and stakeholders to begin addressing some of these questions.

“I truly believe we have a blessed community. I’ve said that since the day I started at the United Way. We have the resources here. We have the nonprofits. We have the expertise here in this community. We have all of it. So why aren’t we doing it? How do we miss it every year and end up scrambling?” she said. “If this community cannot solve this problem, then no community can.”

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