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Homelessness and mental health issues

Homelessness is one of many issues that have become so politically charged that we cannot get one clear estimate of the size of the problem. Last year we saw blue tarps in a tent city beside the rail trail and there were mattresses where people slept under bridges over the Tygart Valley River in Elkins, but there was no accurate way to count people in those locations on census forms.

Counting homeless people was a real frustration for the census takers who trained at Kump Education Center in the summer of 2020. Normal data collection methods did not help them identify problem areas or measure any progress that may have been made to solve them because census taking could not be done effective during the pandemic.

To their credit, the Elkins City Police have made progress on clearing out some signs of local homelessness. We do not see the tarps when we ride bikes along the trail now, and the City has taken most of the furniture and debris out from under the bridges at Davis Avenue and Henry Avenue. Nevertheless, the paths go deeper into the woods now, and the telltale grocery carts are still beside the rail trail from time to time. Over the last two years we have come across people yelling to themselves on a swing or sleeping on a picnic table in Elkins City Park. My husband saw one man sleeping in the big pavilion just yesterday morning. The problem is still here.

Prejudice against the mentally ill is pervasive in our society, and services for people in poor mental health are inadequate in West Virginia. We will have homelessness, and many other problems until we stop dealing with people who are mentally ill as criminals. We need a good plan.

Charleston Mayor Amy S. Goodwin has outlined seven points in her plan to use COVID-19 Relief funds to help deal with the complex issues that impact homelessness in West Virginia cities.

1. Establish a WV Behavioral Health Reform Council to review action plans.

2. Pass the Jim Ramstad model state parity legislation to hold health insurers accountable for discriminating against those with mental health disorders.

3. Provide funding for 25 additional Mental Health Courts throughout West Virginia to help communities working to curb the increase in petty crimes by people needing treatment.

4. Pilot a program to provide college scholarships for individuals who are willing to work as psychiatric nurses and mental health nurse practitioners.

5. Establish funds for a pilot program to increase student access to tele-behavioral health services in schools, libraries, and community centers.

6. Expand funding for Quick Response Teams [QRT] to allow them to work immediately with police in crisis situations.

7. Utilize the 9-8-8 Crisis Hotline Center to operate state and local mobile crisis teams.

Elkins would benefit from this comprehensive state-wide plan for better mental health.

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