Raising Awareness About Hunger and Homelessness

The following appeared in The Journal on November 22, 2015.

Helping fight hunger, homelessness
By Penny Porter, United Way–Eastern Panhandle, Director of Community Impact

As the leaves in our Eastern Panhandle mountains change to those glorious golden and orange hues of fall, households across the region prepare for their Thanksgiving feasts, making grocery lists and menus for those special family gatherings.

However, for many in our communities, it’s the week before Thanksgiving that could really impact them. Each year, the week before Thanksgiving is designated as National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, a time to raise awareness about these issues and work towards addressing the root causes of hunger and homelessness.

In the Eastern Panhandle, these issues are extremely relevant. According to the 2015 Housing Fact Sheet produced by the Health & Human Services Collaborative of the Eastern Panhandle and the Housing Work Group, housing affordability and homelessness are priority challenges for low income households in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties. Not only are the resources in our community scarce for the homeless – there are 200 shelter beds for the homeless, 51 transitional housing beds and supportive services for the formerly homeless, including 115 shelter/transitional beds for Veterans, and no year-round family shelters – but the challenge of finding affordable housing increases the risk for even more families who are on the verge of becoming homeless.

Over 16,500 households in the Eastern Panhandle have low or very low incomes and qualify for federal housing assistance. Yet, qualifying households in our community may have to wait up to two years to obtain housing because there are only 250 Section 8 Housing vouchers, 327 public housing units and 1,800 private subsidized rental units.

The need far outweighs the available resources for housing assistance programs and for affordable housing in general.

So what is affordable housing? It is defined as housing costs being not more than 30 percent of a household’s gross monthly income. In the Eastern Panhandle, approximately 49 percent of all rental households are paying more than 30 percent of income for housing – the Eastern Panhandle counties rank in the top 5 most expensive counties in the state for housing wages needed for a 2-bedroom rental unit – State, $13.21; Jefferson County, $16.42 (No. 1); Morgan County, $15.75 (No. 3); and Berkeley County, $15.12 (No. 4); yet keep in mind the minimum wage is less than $8 an hour. Homeowners are facing similar challenges as 25 percent are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

The lack of affordable housing increases the risk of becoming homeless and creates barriers to moving from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Thus, it is relevant for us to raise awareness about affordable housing not just during this one week in November, but throughout the year. It is why affordable housing is one of our new focus issues for the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle and why we welcome the opportunity to explore collaborative partnerships with other community organizations to address this important issue in our community.

We join with many of our partner agencies and community leaders to recognize National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week this November. We invite you to participate in events that will be held during that designated week and also ask you to remain engaged long after the turkey leftovers are gone this holiday season.

Together, we can work to end hunger and homelessness. Together, we can make our Community Strong!

Visit www.uwayep.org for more about the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle.

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