Charleston homeless’ Tent City numbers dwindle

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Sunday Gazette-Mail — James “Ace” Everett, 72, walks among the tents and clotheslines of Tent City, a homeless encampment near the Spring Street Bridge, in Charleston.

Along the Elk River sits a small community made of tents and tarps.

Many of Charleston’s homeless congregate here, on the riverbank known as Tent City.

Tent City has its own set of rules, its own standards. There are sets of friends here, and lovers.

But, no one here has a permanent home.

At least not yet.

In the summer, there were 25 people living at the encampment next to the Spring Street Bridge. The Charleston-Kanawha Housing Authority, using federal money, has given 14 of them housing vouchers, said Traci Strickland, director of the Kanawha Valley Collective, a nonprofit that addresses homelessness and poverty.

Between six and eight people live in Tent City now. Some of those people are transient — just passing through Charleston — but out of the four remaining from the summer, two are on their way to having apartments.

“Basically, the other people that have been staying down there really just haven’t wanted assistance with housing,” Strickland said.

One tells Strickland he has a place to go if he wants or needs one. Workers haven’t been able to engage with the others to figure out their situations.

“If you really think about it, living in a shelter can be quite difficult,” Strickland said.

Shelters are typically set up like dormitories, but a person might have 19 roommates instead of just one or two.

“Personally, I can’t imagine doing that,” Strickland said.

A “point-in-time” count in Charleston last January found 360 homeless people in the city. Most, 244, were in emergency shelters.

More than 100 were in temporary housing, and just 13 people were counted as unsheltered.

Those counts take place on a particular date each January and are then reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The greatest number of total homeless people was in 2013, when more than 415 were counted.

Fifty-six of them were unsheltered, meaning they were living on the streets.

Some people feel safer outside of shelters. Some aren’t interested in a shelter’s rules, which can require residents to participate in programs in exchange for meals or a bed to sleep in.

Charleston has four homeless shelters: the YWCA’s Sojourner’s Shelter for women and families; the Roark Sullivan Lifeway Center’s Giltinan Center; and Union Mission’s Crossroads Shelter and Brookside Family Life Center.

The Giltinan Center and Crossroads serve homeless adult men.

Brookside serves single women with children and single mothers-to-be.

Strickland, along with workers from Prestera and the YWCA, started visiting the camp this summer, to get to know its residents.

The women provide a variety of services to the people at Tent City, including addressing medical needs, access to drug and alcohol rehab and mental health resources.

They’ve also been working to get housing for those who want it.

Tonya Vannatter, of the Kanawha Valley Collective, helped James carry firewood to the camp.

James has been living “down at the river” since April.

Underneath a tarp, sits a blanket-covered couch with a river view. In the improvised living room, Vannatter asked James if he enjoyed the cake she recently baked him.

He did.

“It was pretty good,” said James, who declined to give his last name. “I ate all I could eat of it. That’s the only thing I ate for two days.”

A winding trail runs down to the camp from the backside of a Waste Management parking lot off Spring Street. It was muddy this particular December Tuesday.

James warned the women to be mindful not to step on the wooden and metal stakes that stick out of the ground here and there along the path.

Whitney Pressley, who works for Prestera, had never been to Tent City before.

“Gloria,” who asked that her real name not be used, oriented her.

“What’s that bridge?” Pressley asked.

“That’s the train bridge,” Gloria answered, as the two looked downriver. “And then the next one is Washington Street. The one after is Lee Street.”

There’s a latrine made of strung up tarps and a hole.

“You use a bag or you don’t use it at all,” Gloria said.

Tent City also has two resident cats: Puss and Boots.

Puss is a white-and-tabby cat, who often stands guard at the top of the path and follows newcomers at a suspicious distance. Boots is solid black and skittish, but eventually warms to people if they are still for long enough.

Those who live at Tent City seem to have complicated and spotty pasts. It’s difficult to find out why, exactly, they’re there.

“It’s just regrouping to get to the next point,” Gloria said.

Gloria came to Tent City a few weeks before Thanksgiving, after a disagreement with her roommate’s significant other. She and James are in a relationship. Gloria isn’t currently employed, but he is.

“They’re only working him one day a week, and it’s a midnight shift and he doesn’t like leaving me down here by myself,” Gloria said.

But she doesn’t worry at night.

“Not at all, not at all,” Gloria said when asked if she gets nervous.

Adam “went crazy” following a divorce a few years ago. He spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and eventually made his way to Tent City, where he used to bring items for those living there.

He used to work in sales, but he isn’t working right now.

“It’s hard to work when you’re living down here,” said Adam, who also declined to give his last name.

James didn’t say how he came to live on the riverside, and his timeline was difficult to gauge. He recalled the group’s first visit to the camp.

“I was laying down beside the tent,” he said. “I was drunk.”

He and Gloria were broken up at the time, he said.

Cher Hilliard, who works for the YWCA, said James doesn’t always drink but, that day, he had been.

He eventually picked himself up off the ground, but he wasn’t interested in speaking with the women.

“But I woke him up anyway,” Hilliard said.

“We’ve established a rapport,” James said.

A girl, 17, was at Tent City for the second time, she said.

“I came back, because things got messed up again,” she said.

She arrived the day before and lives at an encampment just up the hill with her “old man,” as James referred to him.

She called him her friend.

Tent City residents take care of one another, something that surprised Hilliard.

“The most important thing that we were impressed by is, there could be 10 people, and we’ll bring six sandwiches and they’ll cut them in half,” Hilliard said. “Nobody gets all this or all that.”

Gloria, who only met the girl that day, was concerned. She asked if the girl needed anything: blankets, water, food, toilet paper or feminine products.

“Yes,” the girl answered to Gloria’s questions.

Gloria filled a black trash bag of supplies and had James carry it up the hill for her.

The girl was grateful.

“Oh my God, thank you,” she told Gloria. “You’re amazing,”

She said she plans to stay in school.

“I’m just waiting for my schooling to start, and I got to get my grades up,” she said. “And then, after this semester, I’ll be getting my GED, so I won’t have to deal with none of this.”

Adam, James and Gloria have apartments lined up, but their move-in dates keep getting pushed back. They remain hopeful.

“Things just keep happening,” Adam said, “but we’ve just go to stay positive.”


Originally published at www.wvgazettemail.com on January 4, 2015.