The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 19, 2013

Lewisburg organization hopes to establish homeless shelter


Register-Herald Reporter

LEWISBURG — A local volunteer organization may be on the verge of fulfilling a dream to acquire a building that can be used to temporarily house some of Greenbrier County’s indigent people.

The Greenbrier County Commission added its collective endorsement to the efforts of Homeless Inc., a group that formed some 18 months ago with the intent, according to founder Walter Lockhart, of “helping people that fall through the cracks.”

The former director of the Greenbrier Valley chapter of American Red Cross, Lockhart told the commissioners Tuesday that Homeless Inc., helped 53 people last year, spending around $31,000 to provide overnight lodging, meals and transportation for stranded travelers and similar services for local people who have fallen on hard times.

The organization’s money comes from donations and a variety of fundraising measures, including participation in the Greenbrier Classic volunteer program, Lockhart said.

The group relies on referrals from police officers for its “client list,” he noted, saying, “Lewisburg is our biggest client, and White Sulphur Springs is the second biggest.”

Lockhart said he has identified an empty “house in the woods” owned by New River Community and Technical College that he believes is suitable for conversion into a homeless shelter. He described the house as in need of repairs and general sprucing up, but said he has volunteers who are prepared to pitch in when and if he can obtain the structure from the college.

In addition to the letter of endorsement promised by the county commission Tuesday, Lockhart said he has collected 17 supportive letters from other prominent people in the community.

Homeless Inc., serves a four-county region that encompasses Greenbrier, Monroe, Pocahontas and Summers counties.

 

Homelessness and other housing issues also took center stage at the beginning of Tuesday’s commission session with a presentation by Susan Rosshirt and Rick Richter, both of whom are affiliated with the Greenbrier County Housing Authority and its offshoot, the Southeastern Appalachian Rural Alliance (SARA).

Rosshirt reported that a recently-concluded county housing assessment shows that nearly three-quarters of Greenbrier countians live in homes they own, but that many of those homeowners are burdened by mortgages that consume more than 30 percent of the family’s income.

That’s not surprising, however, considering that 23 percent of the county’s residents make less than $25,000 a year, she said.

Pointing out that in order to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Greenbrier County, a single mother with a child would need to make $9.60 an hour, Rosshirt said the key to addressing the county’s housing problems is “finding jobs that pay a livable wage.”

The Housing Authority assists families who have low incomes to pay rent. Rosshirt said those people are “not a bunch of deadbeats,” but rather have challenges finding decent-paying jobs and meeting all of life’s expenses.

She said that 82 percent of the families helped by the Housing Authority are headed by women. The average monthly income of the assisted families is $693.

Homelessness is an increasingly difficult problem, Rosshirt said. Many of the homeless people her agency tries to help are battling substance abuse issues.

“It’s a very, very hard population to serve,” she said.

Richter expanded upon Rosshirt’s narrative, noting the Housing Authority brings around $1.2 million a year in federal rent subsidy money into Greenbrier County. Additionally, he said, about $250,000 in real estate taxes are collected from owners of the rental properties supported by those payments.

SARA, which helps lower-income people buy their own homes, also has a major financial impact on the county, Richter said, putting that figure at $5 million over the agency’s life-span.

Rosshirt said 97 families have purchased homes through SARA, while 1,400 people have received homeowner education services from the agency.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com