How the Coronavirus Made Ending Homelessness Even More Critical

COVID-19 has forced Lou Ortenzio to assume a new role.

“My new job,” Ortenzio, executive director of the Clarksburg Mission in Clarksburg, West Virginia, said, “is getting here in the morning, finding people clustered around and having to tell them, ‘You’ve gotta go.’”

The mission offers emergency shelter to up to 50 people a night and has a dorm for men and another for women and children, each of which can accommodate about 20. It also offers services and support for those in recovery from drug addiction. The facility went into lockdown in March to protect its residents from contracting and potentially spreading COVID-19.

“It’s awful,” Ortenzio said of the need to turn people away, “but I’ve got to protect the folks who are here.” The mission has provided a few tents, but far more assistance is needed. “I don’t know where to tell them to go.”

Harrison County, of which Clarksburg is the county seat, has been vexed by homelessness. The county has the second-highest reported per-capita homeless population in the state. To date, there’s been no coordinated response to address it.

But on an April weekend, a group of volunteers with the Harrison County Task Team on Homelessness began a process they hope is the first step toward a long-term solution.

Equipped with a COVID-19 screening tool developed by the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, they hit the streets to assess and prioritize needs and began placing people in a local motel, with funding provided by the coalition and the United Way of Harrison County. The next step is securing more permanent housing.

“We’ve had a lot of stumbling blocks along the way,” said Marissa Rexroad of past efforts to address homelessness in Harrison County. Rexroad is a longtime advocate for her community’s homeless residents, a former employee of the Clarksburg Mission and an organizer of this new initiative. She hopes that out of the COVID-19 crisis the community will pull together in pursuing a solution.

Step by Step

Across West Virginia, advocates for the homeless are mobilizing.

It’s been more than a month of “really chaotic contingency planning,” said Zach Brown, CEO of the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. The coalition has been focused on two primary objectives: ensuring that homeless shelters have the supplies they need to guard the safety of those within their walls and working with communities to keep people who are living in encampments in place and safe.

“It’s definitely not the time to be razing or disbanding encampments,” Brown said, “because you run the risk of scattering those people to the wind.” Keeping the encampments intact, he said, makes it easier to get information out about safety precautions, and the camps serve as a central location for portable hygiene facilities and food drops.

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