Homelessness & Addiction Task Force Report
Below is the first report from the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and Addiction Resources. Learn more about the task force’s effort to recruit Peer Recovery Support Specialists here.
MAYOR’S TASK FORCE PRESENTATION
What We’ve Been Doing
On May 17 of this year the Mayor’s Task Force on Substance Abuse and Homelessness met for the first time. The core group forming the Task Force was selected by Mayor Marco. In that group we have the Mayor, Sheriff Elbon, EPD Chief Bennett, Jennifer Griggs from RCHA, Councilor Dave Parker, and Melissa Kisner from DM (who has had to temporarily withdraw because of a new work assignment), and Markie Jeffries from the Jobs to Hope program.
The Task Force is following up on the work begun by a group of citizens and representatives of community groups prior to the onset of the Covid outbreak and the disruption that it’s caused. We have worked to identify all of the community organizations that are engaged in missions to address homelessness, substance abuse, and the needs for clothing, food, and medical care. We have gathered this larger group multiple times to assess community resources, understand community needs and identify the significant gaps that may exist in the delivery of critical resources to people in our community who lives are in distress. We remain in discussions to find ways forward in the delivery of services and to do so in an organized, efficient, and effective manner. We are encouraging our community partners to be clear about their core mission and to work with the other partners to minimize duplication and to work to their respective organizational strengths. After each large group meeting, which usually numbers 20 or more participants, the core group meets to process and work through the information shared and ideas offered.
Priorities We’ve Identified
The Task Force has identified a number of actions that we believe to be high priority.
First, establishing safe, clean, sober living space for women and women with children who are focused on the journey of recovery. This is a resource we do not have in our community.
Second, we are looking to engage with men and women who have been working on their own recovery for several years to train and become certified as Peer Recovery Support Specialists. The PRSSs are essential frontline people in working with men and women who are living with addiction and guiding them to needed resources, whether recovery related, food, medical care or shelter. They work as advocates for people who are struggling. These men and women are screened for suitability, trained, and certified by the State of West Virginia. They work under the umbrella of an existing medical practice and with supervision. If we are able to set this up correctly, they will most often be compensated under Medicaid. In some situations their work will have to be grant funded.
Third, we do not have “beds” for people seeking to be in recovery and in need of detox care and initial recovery care and support. These men and women are often in crisis and that may be the moment when they are most receptive to beginning the journey to recovery. It is one of our top goals to have these services and a facility to house them located in our community. People seeking this level of care often experience unacceptable delays and must travel several hours away to find a bed in a system that is already crowded. We intend to work toward bringing this level of mental health services to our community. Toward that end we are preliminarily engaged in conversation with two medical institutions to explore the feasibility of this element of our plans.
Fourth, we know there is an immediate need for a warming shelter to operate through the winter months in Elkins. Our homeless shelter is often at capacity, in addition to which, we have a segment of our homeless population that simply don’t meet the guidelines for our present shelter. In no way is this a criticism of the shelter or its operation. It’s just a dimension of a difficult problem. We have been offered a suitable building for a warming shelter by Woodlands Development Group. It is going to require renovation of the downstairs bathroom and a general cleaning and fresh paint. In addition, a modest budget for gas and electricity must be established. Staffing is going to be the most significant challenge we face in opening a warming shelter. We are thinking that it is most likely that a warming shelter will not be able to open before next winter. Nonetheless, the need will not be magically met by the kindness of our thoughts.
Laying the groundwork
Beyond meeting as the core group and with the larger community-based group, we have met with the leadership team of the PRSS initiative in Morgantown to understand the nuts and bolts of developing and maintaining a parallel program here. We have budget commitments sufficient to screen, train, and attain certification for our PRSS teams.
Members of our team made the trip to Hazel’s House in Morgantown to meet with their leadership team who have put together at the old Ramada Inn, located at I 68 and route 119 in Morgantown, a facility that combines in one place the entire array of supports and services that are needed to begin to meet the needs of people living in a very fragile condition. Jonathan Board, who is the point person for the Hazel’s House project, has been to Elkins to meet with us and to visit a potential site for a similar facility in Elkins. He is prepared to continue to work with us to develop both the plan for the facility and the facility itself. Hazel’s House has ties to both WVU Medicine and Mon General Hospital. We will be engaging with them as we work to deliver what is needed here.
We have met with Mayor Steve Williams of Huntington and the team that has coalesced around the extreme need to address substance abuse and homelessness in that city. We met with 15 or 16 key leaders/team members, each of whom has a specialty that has been and remains critical to the overall effort going on in the city. We visited 5 different program facilities addressing feeding, recovery, homelessness, the need for clothing, and the need for medical care. The members of the Huntington team have offered to meet with us here to flesh out action steps necessary to success, including securing funding. Their first visit is scheduled for just after the holidays.
In every case, the people with whom our team has met have proven to be very skilled and accomplished in their respective areas of activity. They are as committed and persevering as they are skillful and smart. Their offers to walk this walk with us are genuine and invaluable and we will take full advantage of them. We hold these folks in high regard.
Having laid out a bare bones outline of our work to date and the immediate outreach priorities, we are engaged in more long-term activities as well. We are exploring the feasibility of acquiring a particular building in town into which we can efficiently gather all of the necessary services our city offers, as well as some new resources, under one roof. It would be our adaptation of the Hazel’s House model, deeply informed by the Huntington model, just not dispersed around the city as the organizations in Huntington are.
This undertaking will obviously require a very careful business plan that takes into account every detail from the idea stage until a number of years after the facility and the team organizations working in it have established their presence and practices. Also, we believe that for maximum benefit to be realized, and for the sake of sustainability, this must be a regional initiative. And this takes us into the next part of this report.
We are aware that homelessness has multiple causes: ordinary bad luck, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, simply not knowing how to do more than scratch to get by in life. The same is true for substance abuse. The drivers can be several and complex. Therefore, we are committed to working toward a significant improvement in the general mental health supports offered in our community and a significant improvement in supports for intervention, detox, recovery and the multiple services required for people to put their lives together. Because Elkins is a regional commercial, tourism, medical, financial, and population center, we draw people from a wide region, including those who lives may be very broken. The people are already here, offering healing will not increase those numbers. The people have already come, in all sorts and conditions.
To understand the complex financial puzzle that must be solved, consider this: In the Inter-Mountain of December 9, there is an article about CPS being at the meltdown point. Thirty-plus percent of births in WV right now are babies who are born addicted or who are exposed to very problematic drugs while in the womb. The cost of treating each one of these children until they reach adulthood $2 million. We cannot afford to not enter into this work – knowing that it will require great patience, perseverance, and investment. Davis Memorial has one physician who is working with expectant mothers in an effort to minimize the harm caused to babies by substance abuse. In addition to direct harm caused by drug use, there is the trauma children experience in households where there is addiction and substance abuse. The long-term effects of trauma on both children and adults is well documented. The costs are staggering.
If we need to look at it in another way, then we can think of it as the 21st Century application of the story of the Loaves and Fishes. We are called, challenged, to trust in the sufficiency of God’s love for all of us. We are challenged to operate from a belief in abundance rather than a model of chronic scarcity.
Both the Huntington and Morgantown teams have told us that by acting now we are operating with foresight and are significantly ahead of where they were when they began their work to address these problems. They and we recognize that the issues we are all confronting will not go away by themselves. They are not unique to West Virginia or to our region, they are nationwide. In every place and at every level the need for mental health care is at a critically high level – not just for addiction recovery but for the general population. Mental health issues underlie much of the addiction and homelessness problem.
Finally, we on the Task Force fully support the work of our law enforcement personnel in their work to interdict the movement of illegal drugs throughout our region. We recognize that drug dealers will sell whatever chemical mess they can get. They’re selling poison and we want it off the streets.