Trey Kay, Mitch Hanley Published

Compassion Fatigue


Homelessness has been on the rise since 2016, and the pandemic only exacerbated an acute shortage of resources to help people living on the streets. Now, many communities are struggling to provide support as some homeless people turn away from emergency shelters and remain in outdoor encampments. 

In Charleston, West Virginia, the city’s opioid response program also now focuses on homelessness. “Tent cities” have been a focus at the state legislature as debate continues over how best to help people living on the street. 

At the same time, some people say they’re more afraid of people living on the street than in the past. Providing sustained care for homeless people continues to elude and divide even well-meaning and determined communities.

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the CRC Foundation.

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Us & Them host Trey Kay met Randy Lantz while Lantz sheltered on the steps of First Presbyterian Church in Charleston on a cold night in January 2023. Lantz said he’s been homeless since 2016. He said he’s from Atlanta, Georgia and has been in prison three times. Lantz said he found his way “back into the world” after his first two prison terms. But this time, he said, he cannot.

Credit: Julie Blackwood
Rev. William Myers became First Presbyterian Church’s new head minister in August 2021. It wasn’t long before he became aware of the church’s transient guests who slept on the building’s front steps. Rev. Myers allowed them to camp there overnight. But he wanted to set limits, knowing children in the church’s preschool program used that entrance every morning and afternoon.

He established some ground rules for those sheltering on the steps. But this did not resolve the concerns of community members in and outside First Presby. In his first days in Charleston, Rev. Myers was quickly immersed in the debate over how best to help people living on the street.

Credit Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

(Click here to view Rev. Myer’s sermon about caring for homeless people.)

Ashley Switzer was born and raised in Charleston. She is a school teacher. Ashley and her husband have raised five children in West Virginia’s capitol city. Her grandson attends a preschool that’s located near First Presbyterian Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church, which houses Manna Meal, a soup kitchen that’s been serving meals to homeless people for more than four decades.  

“There was a group of parents from this school right here who actually called for a meeting with the mayor of our town because of instances with homeless or criminal vagrants on school property, near school property, banging on parents’ car doors, children in the back screaming,” she said, standing outside the preschool playground where her grandson plays. “There have been children playing on this actual playground where homeless people will threaten them. My grandson has witnessed someone walking down this very sidewalk with no pants.”

Credit: Ashley Switzer
Barbara DiPietro is the senior director of policy for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. She oversees the group’s federal advocacy and policy analysis. “It’s not compassion in our public policies when we consistently choose not to fund housing, not to raise wages, to allow people to not get health care,” DiPietro said. “Homelessness isn’t an accident. These are conscious public policy choices.”

Credit: National Institute for Medical Respite Care
Taryn Wherry is director of the City of Charleston’s CARE program, or Coordinated Addiction Response Effort. The CARE program began under Charleston’s current mayor, Amy Goodwin.

“We take a very hands-on, boots on the ground approach every day,” Wherry said. “We’re in the streets, we’re on the [river] banks or in abandoned properties. We’re talking to people and meeting them where they’re at.”

Wherry said CARE staff know firsthand what it is like to be out on the streets, struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. 

“We have individuals who have lived and learned experience in all fields, people who are in long-term recovery who have been in active addiction,” she said. 

Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

(Click here to hear Mayor Goodwin on meeting the needs of Charleston’s homeless population.)

(Click here to view former Charleston Mayor Danny Jones announcing his order to dismantle a homeless encampment known as “Tent City.”)

Sommer Short is a peer support worker with Covenant House, which is one of the nonprofit service organizations that works with Charleston’s CARE team. When Sommer was 21, she was injured in a car accident and was prescribed opioids. Over the next five years, she transitioned to heroin use. She said she eventually left home and became homeless. 

Short is sober now and works to help unhoused people who are living the way she used to live. She said many of the homeless people she meets are living with substance use disorder. She said they feel like “her people.”

“Though I may be in a position where I’m three years sober today, I am comfortable going out there and trying to help someone the same way that someone helped me,” she said.

Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
One way Short tries to help is by offering food and “hygiene bags” to homeless people camping in and around Charleston. She keeps the supplies in the trunk of her car.

“In the bag, we have a Ziploc bag, which contains the toilet paper and their socks and some ointment. Then, we have some baby wipes. And inside, we also have a bottle of water, a hairbrush, a comb, a little travel pack for their toothpaste and a brush, a razor, shaving cream,” she said. Short also has food gift cards and Narcan nasal spray, which can be used to reverse a drug overdose.

Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
As Short walked toward a homeless encampment, she passed under a highway overpass. Someone had written “HOPE” in yellow spray paint on the concrete wall. 

“Hold On Pain Ends,” Short said, describing what the word meant to her. “You always gotta have hope. Pain ends eventually. But you got to work for it as well.”

Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting