by Kate Evans
With increasing need for safe and temporary shelter for people throughout the year, the Morgan County Homeless Coalition has begun work to create a year-round shelter in Berkeley Springs.
Pastor Dick Voorhaar, president of the Morgan County Homeless Coalition, signed a lease on Friday, October 29 to renovate the former pawnshop next to The Refuge Church at the corner of Route 9 West and North Washington Street. The group will be taking over the building on November 1 and transforming it into a 12-bed homeless shelter.
The coalition’s initial target was to have the building renovated for the winter of 2022, but volunteers are going to work hard toward getting it open on an emergency basis this winter, Voorhaar said.
Arrangements for people who will need cold weather shelter this winter are still being worked out.
A lot needs to be done –completing renovations, hiring staff and people to do the work and the fire marshal’s inspection. After the work is finished they’ll have a permanent cold weather shelter that can provide other services year-round.
“It will be so much better,” Voorhaar said.
Former Morgan County Homeless Coalition president and director Bill Grow said the building has no running water and that they’ll have to put in two bathrooms. They also want to put in some doors and solid space for privacy.
The coalition plans to hire staff since their volunteer base has fallen. Many of the volunteers who ran the rotating shelters at local churches in previous years are no longer able to offer help.
The Morgan County Homeless Coalition is a 501c3 charitable organization that was formed in 2017. Their primary mission is providing shelter to homeless people during cold weather months from December 1-March 1.
Changing their approach
The Homeless Coalition changed from using rotating overnight shelters at area churches due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of volunteers. The coalition housed people at the Super 8 Motel in Hancock last winter.
The organization helped 20 men, 13 women and two children last year who were in need of shelter during the winter, said former Morgan County Homeless Coalition president and director Bill Grow.
Last winter, the group provided 839 bed nights (a person in a bed for a night), which was a jump from 349 bed nights the first winter (2017-2018) and 386 bed nights the following year.
Serving different populations
Grow said the coalition has served several people that had lost their jobs then lost their homes, plus occasional transients that stay for a while, get a job and move on. The coalition provided shelter for some people whose cars broke down on the interstate. There were also a couple of people living in tents by the river.
Voorhaar said there are people living in campsites, under bridges, staying in the woods, sleeping in a car or on a porch.
Grow said they’ve had many people tell them that the coalition saved their lives.
Local nurse Terri Bliziotes, who previously worked with Senior Life Services of Morgan County, has been helping the Homeless Coalition with grant writing and communications. Bliziotes said her work has taken her to the homeless population.
Bliziotes noted that the homeless population is changing — it’s older, includes more families that have lost jobs, then lost their house or apartment and have no money to move into a new place.
There are homeless teenagers that don’t feel safe in their own home and spend a lot of time on their friends’ couches. There are also transient people who are traveling from nearby cities to another place that need shelter and a little help, she said.
But mostly the local homeless population is made up of more vulnerable community members who are dealing with great loss and many challenges, Bliziotes stressed.
Around five years ago Bliziotes and others moved an elderly man and his caretaker into low income housing when they couldn’t pay the cost of oil for their trailer. The woman remained in the apartment after the man passed away and found work as a caregiver after receiving formal training through the Senior Center, Bliziotes said.
An 81-year old woman wound up homeless after her sister died. The landlord decided to tear down the house that she’d lived in for many years. The lady was basically living in her car, eating fast food or donated foods and trying to manage her medical conditions and her life, Bliziotes said.
An elderly Great Cacapon couple took the woman into their home for what originally was supposed to be two to three weeks while low-income housing was being prepared for her, Bliziotes said. They’ve now hosted her for almost four months.
When asked to help the woman, the couple didn’t hesitate, Bliziotes said. Others in the community have also taken in homeless people and families temporarily until they got on their feet and found a place to live.
Grow’s goal has been to get a large enough place to take in a number of homeless people and provide training and skills for them so they can find work. The coalition could possibly offer computer training and G.E.D. instruction at their site.
The Morgan County Homeless Coalition needs financial community support and volunteers.
Voorhaar said that money has been coming in from churches, organizations, businesses and individuals and from grants Bliziotes has written to help with their mission of a permanent homeless shelter. A year-round shelter will need consistent funding from year to year.
“God’s moving us in this direction and giving us everything we need,” Voorhaar said. The coalition is looking at what other homeless shelters are doing and are asking “What can we do to help our brothers and sisters?”
Voorhaar invited everyone to join them at the Morgan County Homeless Coalition meetings and to bring their ideas and experience. The group meets on the second and fourth Monday of every month at 5:30 p.m. at the Refuge Church in Berkeley Springs.