Come in from the cold
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like in many other cities around the nation, Charleston struggles to deal with the homelessness issue, and some members of a local shelter aren't sitting around waiting on the homeless to come to them seeking help.
Instead, they're hitting the streets looking for the needy.
Employees with the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center drive through around the city every week looking for those in need of shelter, said Alex Alston, chief operating officer for the agency. The employees carry food with them to hand out to the homeless individuals as they talk about the services offered at the center, he said.
"We go out to talk to people and try to get them off the streets," he said.
Staff members often give out blankets during the outreach missions, Alston said. This past Wednesday, the group also gave out gloves and hats.
Alston and his team try to establish trust with the homeless so that those in need are more willing to come into the shelter or tell the shelter employees where other homeless individuals are staying.
"We're not going out there trying to force anyone to come into the shelter," Alston said. "But we want to make sure people know this is a safe place for them to come."
Alston said it normally takes a few visits before a homeless person begins to trust the shelter employees.
"Some people just don't want to come into the shelter," he said. "And it takes a little bit of time to earn their trust."
The weather can be another challenge when trying to find homeless in the city, Alston said.
"It's hard to find people when it's really cold outside," he said. Yet that's an important time to find them and make sure they are safe.
"The people living on the street don't get to take a day off when the weather's bad," Alston added.
"And because they're transient, it's really hard to pinpoint exactly where they're at," said Addison B. Hall, the 31-year-old behavior rehabilitation specialist with the SHAPE Program at Roark-Sullivan.
SHAPE stands for Support, Hope, Advocacy, Personal Responsibility and Education and members of the program deal with those who are chronically homeless in the area, Addison said.
Last Wednesday was one of those days. A mixture of snow and rain fell steadily as temperatures hovered around the freezing point. This type of weather often drives homeless people into abandoned buildings or businesses that are still open in order to stay warm, said Frank Pensula, program services coordinator for veterans at the shelter.
The 52-year-old agency employee added that homeless also often head into the hospital emergency rooms and act like they are there with family so they can stay warm.
Pensula was one of four employees who braved the elements to get out and find needy folks last Wednesday. But despite checking under bridges and behind a local restaurant, where staff had been told a homeless man was staying, they found no one.
"Sometimes it's kind of like fishing; you just don't get any bites," Pensula said.
However, staff members spotted evidence that homeless people were living under a bridge on Charleston's West Side. Piles of blankets and sleeping bags were found under the bridge as were empty bags from area fast-food chains.
"There were a lot of McDonald's bags under that bridge," said Cindy Thompson, vice president of Roark-Sullivan. "That means they have some sort of income. So we could probably get them into housing if we could convince them to come into the shelter and get help."
The group left bags of sandwiches along with business cards and other information about services were available at the shelter.
The Roark-Sullivan shelter often runs at capacity. Overflow is available for those who need to come in for a warm place to stay through the night, Alston said. However, if for some reason the homeless individual cannot stay at the shelters run by Roark-Sullivan, then agency officials will try to get them into another shelter in the city, Alston said.
"We're going to make sure we find them a place to stay," he said.
Alston said he has heard anecdotal evidence that more and more people are moving into area shelters. He added that he is also seeing a lot of new faces in the area shelters, which is a trend that has increased over the past few years.
The Roark-Sullivan employees have recently been joined with volunteers from the West Virginia University School of Medicine. The resident students have been traveling with the outreach group in order to gather information to start a program where doctors travel out to homeless people in order to offer care.
"They're looking for doctors to staff the program," Thompson said.
Contact writer Paul Fallon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4817.