West Virginia cities need to show more empathy for people without homes

November 21, 2023 5:57 am
A beige stone church with a rainbow Pride flag sits on the corner of a street.

Up until a few weeks ago, Manna Meal operated a soup kitchen located inside St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, W.Va. Manna Meal currently operates out of a food truck, only serving a fraction of the people the physical location served. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

There’s been multiple municipal attacks on homeless populations in West Virginia over the last few months.

Wheeling City Council voted to ban camping on public property without permission earlier this month. The ordinance will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

Monongalia County Commission passed an ordinance last month that prohibits panhandling at “busy intersections,” the wording careful to make it seem like they are doing this out of concern for the safety of panhandlers.

“Regardless of the perception, or even if it’s the reality, of how the ordinance was born, it’s completely morphed into something that does not attack panhandling,” said Commissioner Jeff Arnett. “It does not outlaw panhandling, it doesn’t criminalize homelessness, and it doesn’t even mention homelessness.”

Just because the ordinance doesn’t specifically say anything about homeless people, that doesn’t mean it’s not aimed at people who are houseless.

Earlier this month in Charleston, Manna Meal, the city’s only soup kitchen, was forced to close its physical location at St. John’s Episopal Church after a man allegedly “made a lunging motion with his right hand” at a woman and her child on the steps of nearby Sacred Heart Grade School. Others have said the man tripped up the steps, but the incident upset parents, who had organized to try to shut down Manna Meal, said Rev. Jim Lewis, who helped start the soup kitchen in 1976.

Lewis, who is no longer involved Manna Meal, made his comment in a video interview with the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia where he spoke about the political pressure to close Manna Meal.

One of those Sacred Heart parents is former Del. Doug Skaff, who introduced a bill in the 2022 legislative session to “prohibit feeding areas for homeless persons” within 1,500 feet of a school. The bill did not pass.

“Show me how you treat poor people and I’ll show you what kind of community it is,” Lewis says.

As it’s starting to get colder, there will be more hungry people in Charleston. Manna Meal is still running its food truck, but it’s not feeding nearly as many people.

The last day the kitchen at the church was open, 619 meals were served. The next day, the food truck served only 217 meals.

While hundreds of unhoused people in Charleston go hungry, hundreds on Charleston’s West Side have been going without gas for heat, hot water and cooking for more than a week after a water main break that caused water to get into gas lines.

United Way of Central West Virginia provided free heaters, but people were asked for their address when they picked them up. The Red Cross and Bream Memorial Presbyterian Church set up an emergency shelter for residents without heat, even though the lowest the temperature dropped was 29 degrees Fahrenheit — warming shelters don’t open for the homeless until the temperature drops to below 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Let me be clear — I’m glad that people stepped up and helped my fellow West Side residents. That’s what should be done. We should care about each other.

However, why aren’t the people who aren’t fortunate enough to have a home being treated with the same care and concern?

People without housing are not the enemy. They are people who have fallen on hard times — maybe they had medical bills they couldn’t pay or lost their jobs or had to run away from an abusive relationship or family and didn’t have a support system who could help them. 

So many people rant on social media about panhandlers not wanting to work, but how can someone get a job when they don’t have a phone to receive calls for an interview or a physical address to list on a job application? How do they get transportation to a job with no money? Where do they shower or get ready for work when no one wants a shelter in their neighborhood?

Leave those toxic Facebook groups that villainize everyone with a backpack as a drug addict. Have empathy for your neighbors. 


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Leann Ray
Leann Ray

Leann Ray is a lifelong West Virginian. Her work at the Daily Athenaeum and Charleston Gazette-Mail has won numerous awards. She is a graduate of West Virginia University.