Effort under way to study homelessness in Morgan
Local government, school, church and community leaders are trying to sort through the complex and often hidden issue of housing and homelessness in Morgan County.
Several recent meetings at the Board of Education office have restarted the conversation about where families can go if they need help finding a house or apartment or if they find themselves with no place to sleep.
Several local churches and service groups offer help for families in need of shelter, from rent assistance to cash gifts, but Morgan County doesn’t have a designated shelter for those in need.
As the winter months close in, community leaders are wondering if the time for a shelter has come, and how it would be set up so the community would share the responsibility for its operation.
How big is the need?
Grasping the extent of the need is difficult. The staff at Starting Points Family Resource Center have encountered some weeks when they get a call every day from a person or family unit facing eviction.
Executive Director Audrey Morris said assisting families with housing issues is all she does some days. Recently, the homeless shelter in Martinsburg has been constantly full, so that outlet is not an option.
Instead, private landlords or individuals sometimes step in to offer a place for someone to live, even if just for a few days between renters, Morris said.
That sort of emergency shelter meets the immediate need for a dry, warm place to live.
Solving the longer-term need for stable and suitable housing requires a bigger commitment to tackling issues like employment and transportation, plus life skills like basic budgeting, job training and scheduling.
Starting Points staff can offer such guidance to families, but basic needs always come first, especially when children are involved.
While she is uncertain how many families are truly homeless right now, Morris knows many local residents have lost their homes or apartments and are finding temporary places to stay, often with family or friends.
County Commissioner Brenda Hutchinson, who has been involved in meetings about housing issues, said those temporary fixes make it hard to pin down the extent of the homelessness issue.
“A lot of people couch-surf, and aren’t counted because they have someplace to get in out of the cold,” Hutchinson said recently.
The term “couch-surf” refers to individuals who sleep at a different home every night, or who rely on the hospitality of friends and family.
In some cases, multiple families are sharing a house or apartment.
“When you have 10 or 12 people in an apartment together, that creates its own problems,” Morris said.
Having enough food for everyone, space for appropriate sleeping arrangements and utilities to serve multiple families become pressing questions in those cases.
Landlords who discover extra residents in their rental units may not look kindly on the arrangement, jeopardizing the situation for everyone, said Morris.
In an effort to get a clear sense of the extent of the housing need, local leaders have planned to conduct a “Point in Time” survey of local homelessness in January.
On certain days, trained volunteers will spread out into the community
to uncover and count the number of residents who are officially homeless.
By definition, a person can only be counted as homeless if they are living somewhere “unfit for human habitation,” like in a car or a tent or outdoors, Morris said.
The group plans to sponsor dinner events in hopes of having residents identify themselves as homeless or in need of permanent housing, according to Commissioner Brad Close.
In the meantime, community members continue to hear rumors of people living under bridges, in parks or in tents in the woods.
Finding out if those rumors are true, and deciding what to do if they are, pose real questions as the weather turns cold and the extent of housing need becomes clearer.