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HUNTINGTON — Earlier this month, the Huntington Fire Department donated carbon monoxide detectors to Harmony House to help protect individuals living in their vehicles.

While the local homeless coalition was grateful, their executive director said there is a deeper question of why the detectors are such a necessity.

The Aspen Institute estimated last year that 30 million to 40 million people in America are at risk of eviction, a number exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Amanda Coleman, executive director of Harmony House, said the number of people facing homelessness was increasing in the Huntington area before COVID-19 even hit.

Coleman identified four things that contribute to the increase: winter, COVID-19, the opioid epidemic and lack of housing. A solution won’t be possible without complete reform, she said.

“Overall, housing is a human right. There shouldn’t be anybody sleeping in a car. There shouldn’t be anybody climbing through a hole in the front porch of an abandoned building to sleep in the crawl space,” she said. “And we have the resources both intellectually and financially to keep this from happening, but we have to have the will and the desire to do so.”

Homelessness on the rise

Coleman said there has been a huge spike in the number of people living unsheltered, whether it be outside, in their vehicle, a place not fit for human habitation or otherwise.

“That was already going up before COVID, but it’s just skyrocketed,” she said. “We’re also seeing a large number of people who are not actually being evicted yet, but they’re fearful that they’re going to be. They’re really behind on their rent or they’re really behind on their utilities.”

Most leases have provisions requiring tenants to have utilities turned on, especially those receiving government assistance. With unemployment being a major concern during COVID-19, some people are unable to do that.

“There’s been really heartbreaking situations of people who’ve never experienced homelessness or been in danger of it who have called and said, ‘Look, I’m not being threatened with eviction yet, but I missed work for this period of time because I was sick with COVID,’” she said.

Most money available through state funding is only available for people who are already facing eviction.

“It’ll be great for them. That’ll take a chunk of it, you know, but it’s not going to help people who are just trying to keep themselves from getting into that position,” she said.

The Aspen Institute said in August an estimated 30 million to 40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction at the end of 2020 and into the next year, about a quarter of Americans in renter households. The number came from studies that showed between 27% and 34% of rental families were at risk of job or wage loss.

The studies showed about 65,000 to 78,000 West Virginia tenants were at risk, about 149,000 to 179,000 total residents, or about 32% to 48% of its rental properties.

Fixed with Band-Aids

Last month, apparent carbon monoxide poisoning killed two people and a dog in the Eastern Heights Shopping Plaza, along U.S. 60 outside of Huntington. Temperatures were in the high teens to lower 20s that day. Coleman said another person also had recently frozen to death due to lack of housing.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to see people in these situations, knowing that our nation has the ability to stop that from happening,” she said. “It’s a very helpless feeling because in some areas there’s quite a bit of resources and other areas there is not.”

Through the suggestion of a board member, contact was made with Huntington Fire officials, who donated carbon monoxide detectors to help prevent similar situations from happening.

Coleman said she found one person right away who took up the offer to use the detector in his truck.

“It’s almost like putting Band-Aids on situations. You know, like we shouldn’t be in a position where we’re trying to prevent people from dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in their cars. We should be in a position where that person has a home,” she said.

A grassroots organization in Huntington, On The Streets Committee, decried Huntington’s unlawful camping ordinances, which make it a punishable offense to sleep in public spaces.

“When our community (members) are labeled ‘criminals’ for engaging in activities that are necessary for survival, like sleeping, you have to start questioning the morality of the policy makers,” said Aaron Llewellyn, an organizer.

Llewellyn said the laws were misguided and pushed people into fringes, while creating more barriers for people trying to survive.

Pandemic not only factor

Coleman said the main issue creating the uptick is that not enough houses will pass an inspection. There’s also an issue with finding leases that include utilities for those who might not be able to open utilities in their own name.

She also said there has been an increase of people who need handicap-accessible units — like seniors or people who have a disability. The number has also risen because of the opioid epidemic, she said.

“It’s like this confluence of all of these factors. We’ve got winter; we’ve got COVID; our unsheltered numbers were already up; and there already wasn’t enough affordable housing,” she said. “The opioid epidemic is still ongoing and has in some ways gotten worse during the pandemic. It’s multidimensional.”

Coleman said Harmony House has persevered through it all and she was proud of her co-workers for working their hardest through the pandemic.

The Huntington City Mission cut its hours until receiving CARES Act money from the state. During that time, Harmony House worked in overdrive to help bridge the gap. However, now the two nonprofits have the stability for at least one to be open round-the-clock.

The Huntington City Mission’s chapel will be open as a cold weather shelter from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. and Harmony House will be open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Harmony House plans to remain open throughout the weekend.

Complete reform

Until officials start to address the societal conditions that cause homelessness, Coleman said the community will continue to face these issues.

Many of the people Harmony House serves have experienced homelessness and trauma in their childhood, Coleman said, and if communities don’t start to intervene in those things, such as by addressing mental health issues or food insecurity, the problem will continue to grow.

“If we’re thinking, very practical, we need more affordable housing. And that means our federal government funding the construction of affordable housing and subsidizing it,” she said.

She said that also ensures there are adequate construction companies to build that housing, but there is not enough skilled labor in the state to manage it.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.