Danielle Stewart for Mayor of Beckley

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” – Mother Teresa


We all know we have a homeless problem in Beckley.  Rumors fly of other cities sending their homeless to us but there is no way to confirm or deny the rumor.  Others say we are a natural stopping point along the interstate as transients travel from one end of the country to another.  We are the center of southern West Virginia and so we draw people from all the surrounding counties.  We even have people that say we have a homeless problem because we have people and organizations who actually care about other people and provide support (I have heard from more than a few people that we should stop helping the homeless and then they will go away).


Just like we do not know from where homeless people are coming, we do not know why they are homeless.  Most people assume drugs or alcohol and the homeless are lazy and don’t want to work.  President Reagan even stated that homeless people want to be homeless.  The reality is more than a few people in our community, and in the entire state, are just a few sick days away from not paying their bills and going homeless.  In addition, our state and federal government severely underfund residential mental health facilities, finding it easier (and cheaper) to turn residents suffering from trauma, abuse, or mental illness out into the streets for the cities to handle.  Our politicians then make these people who need help into the villains.  Add in our foster children who age out of the system with our victims of domestic abuse and you begin to understand the real reasons for homelessness. 


What we know as a fact is we have a homeless problem that is impacting our city.  People don’t feel safe to walk downtown - someone’s always asking you for money.  Businesses complain of vagrants hanging around their offices.  Homeless breaking into vacant properties to stay warm.  People stealing anything they can sell.  None of this will change until Beckley, as a community, acknowledges the problem and decides to take action.  What will we do?


Imagine a facility where the homeless can be fed, take a shower, do laundry, and get a haircut.  A place where there is a social worker, counselor, and spiritual leader available to help the homeless navigate the social support network.  This facility will have a mailroom where the homeless can get a mailbox and physical address (which is the prerequisite for getting an ID card, and typically the biggest barrier to getting help).  Daily transportation is provided to hospitals, clinics, WorkForce WV, Pine Haven, and other places offering support.  The facility has lockers for homeless people to secure their belongings. A lounge with chairs and televisions.  A place where transients can get a free ticket out of town.


This facility will provide office space and automation systems for charities to operate outreach offices.  There will be a chapel and offices for religious leaders to minister to those seeking spiritual guidance.  A supervised computer lab.  Even a community nurse to help prevent the spread of diseases and treat minor ailments.  Let’s not forget security because we know there will be problems.


This is a drop-in center where the homeless and others in need can find the support to improve their lives.  Sometimes it will just be a place to hang out when it is raining and cold and other times it will be the gateway to help.  This place is not a shelter.  We have one of those that operates near capacity.  This place augments and supports the shelter - a first step to help.


I have no illusions of a grand place where everyone walks around clean, smiling, and happy as they transition to a productive life full of meaning.  There will be crime and fighting here.  There will be drugs dealt and used here.  People will be sick here.  But here is the catch: the crime, fighting, drugs, and illnesses are happening in Beckley rather we want them to or not.  Currently, these activities happen all over Beckley in neighborhoods, businesses, streets, and vacant houses.  What this facility does is use the incentive of help to provide a location where these activities are consolidated, thereby limiting their impact on the rest of the city.


And also, maybe, truly help those that want help.


The obvious issue here is location, location, and location.  The chosen location needs to be near existing services but not so close that the facility negatively impacts homes and businesses.  It cannot be on the edge of town as the people we want to help with this facility will be less likely to use it.  I have ideas but I do not have answers for a location because this is a delicate matter for the community.  Our values demand we help the homeless, while our instincts are to protect our families and ourselves.


I do have ideas on where to start.  We will look at the current Salvation Army Store area since it is centrally located, a relatively large size building, and not too close to vulnerable neighborhoods and businesses (there are also options to expand into the old audio store located across the street).  This would of course be after the Salvation Army Store moves to its new location on Robert C. Byrd Drive.  We will also look at the vacant buildings between McDonald’s and Means Lumber on Prince Street as there is room to expand, it is centrally located, and generally even further away from neighborhoods.  There may also be old school property somewhere in the city we can obtain from the board of education to house the drop-in center.


I typically provide an estimate of cost for my ideas but I can’t do that with this initiative because I really cannot estimate the major cost of securing and outfitting a facility.  I do believe that once the facility is open that the actual operation of the facility will not have a significant budget impact as the majority of services I discussed are already being provided by other entities; all the facility does is consolidate and support their efforts.  I also believe we will receive state, federal, and private grants to help us build and operate this facility.  We just have to be willing to take the chance. 


I am the leader willing to take the chance.


Every major religion and spiritual belief system commands us to help the poor, unfortunate, and homeless.  As a Christian, I am compelled to help those most in need, as I am able, and as Mayor I will do what I can as I also protect the health and safety of our city.


34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[a] you did it to me.’ – Matthew 25:34-40 English Standard Version (ESV)