FAIRMONT — Businesses that were not deemed essential were not the only organizations that were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social service charities, such as the Soup Opera and Friendship Fairmont temporarily closed in order to follow social distancing guidelines, which left their clients without a place to go during the day.
“We were all very distraught about the fact that there were folks on the street that could no longer go into any of the shelters,” said Rebecca Burton, a member of the Fairmont Homeless Coalition and Homelessness Task Force. “They could not go in to get off the streets during the day to the Soup Opera or Friendship Fairmont or to the Mission, because all of that was closed down.”
According to Lauren Frederick, policy development officer for the Bridgeport-based West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, the homeless are just as likely, if not more likely, to contract COVID-19 at this time, because they are unable to shelter in place. She said this pandemic is a public health crisis, because everyone is susceptible to contracting the virus.
“COVID-19 is a public health crisis, it’s not just something being experienced by homeless people,” Frederick said. “At this point it’s not really about homeless services, it’s about ‘This is a public health crisis, and people who don’t have the ability to shelter in place need to be provided that.’”
Niow, Frederick and the coalition have joined forces with the United Way of Marion and Taylor Counties to start a new program place the homeless in hotels so they can have both shelter and access to services they need to stay healthy through the pandemic.
“When this all came about, we really started to see what a major public health concern this was going to be with these un-sheltered individuals who really needed assistance,” said Brett White, executive director of the United Way of Marion and Taylor Counties. “We were happy to be able to step up to the plate to help coordinate the initiative from a community standpoint.”
White said the United Way is working to guide and fund the program. Frederick said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused riffs in many businesses and agencies, so she believes this is actually a good time to implement the hotel program.
“I think what’s fairly evident at this point in time is every crack in every system,” Frederick said. “So it’s not just about homeless services, it’s about our health care system and it’s about our economy, and homeless services — social services are just one piece of that.”
Frederick also said that providing case management to homeless individuals is especially imperative now, and the Coalition will work to find support for those served after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.
“We have to start thinking of that next step as ‘How do we locate secure units to begin to move people into their own housing, but also provide them that case management and support that is so vital?’” Frederick said. “There is a lot of moving parts to be thinking about all at once.”
The Coalition to End Homelessness funnels donations from different groups and grants into projects and organizations across the state that help the homeless, and this United Way project is one organization that will be receiving some available funding.
“As a Housing and Urban Development continuum of care, we funnel HUD assistance dollars through the state to housing providers,” Frederick said. “We also provide some oversight to the shelters... We’re a funding entity, a ‘pass through,’ as you call it, but also we have a direct service sector that helps with outreach and peer support.”
White said the United Way is able to fund this project through money from its coronavirus response fund, as well as money received through the Coalition to End Homelessness. He said it will be able to serve approximately 15 people, and nine are already being served by the program.
“We think it will probably be about 15 individuals,” White said. “From the Point in Time Count, we have approximately 25 to 30 individuals who were homeless or un-sheltered. The goal was to get half of those individuals into this hotel project.”
United Way is working with a local hotel whom White described as “gracious” to work with. He said this project helps the hotel industry as well, because people are no longer renting rooms during the pandemic.
“As much as this project is about helping, it’s also about helping a local business who is struggling right now as well,” White said. “The hotel industry is certainly not getting visitors right now, so we thought this was a win-win for both sides.”
White said people can donate to the United Way’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to help with this program and others relating to the coronavirus, and the organization will continue funding relief programs throughout the pandemic.
“We’re focused on making sure we are addressing all the emerging needs as the crisis continues,” White said.
Burton said keeping these services going during this challenging time will help to bring them back in full force once the pandemic is over. She said it could even lead to more creative ideas in the future.
“Even once this is over with, the needs of our folks that are on the streets are not going to stop,” Burton said. “We could use this as a trampoline to fly off and continue to provide services.”
To donate to the United Way’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, visit unitedwaymtc.org.