Chris Schulz Published

New Shelter Funding System A Boon For Some, Problem For Others

A homeless man sleeps next to a cart full of his possessions.Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, West Virginia’s mechanism for funding emergency shelters shifted to an application-based system. 

Homelessness and housing instability is on the rise across the country. In 2019, a federal count of unhoused people in West Virginia showed 1,397 people without adequate shelter on a single night. In 2023, that number had risen to 1416 individuals.

Since the 1980s, West Virginia has doled out about $1.8 million dollars each year in state funds to emergency shelters. In 2019, Jessica Gregg and the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (WVCEH) started monitoring and assessing those shelters. 

Gregg is the shelter policy director for WVCEH and oversees the Homeless Services program through the Department of Human Services Bureau for Social Services. She said this was the first time the funding process was competitive. Old and new shelters were asked to submit applications.

“Submit your intake packet, submit your rules for your shelter, submit what are you going to do?” Gregg said. “That’s what we did to rank everyone on this funding. We had a review committee of six individuals, some within the state, some outside the state, some with nonprofits that don’t do anything with homelessness.” 

The application process now provides an enforcement mechanism, and shelters that aren’t providing adequate services or not following best practices can lose their funding. Gregg said it’s the kind of shakeup needed to remind West Virginians what the goal is.

“Some areas are so used to doing the same thing over and over again that there’s no sense of urgency,” she said. “There’s no sense of ‘Well, what do we do now?’ And sometimes for communities as well, communities really focused on the shelter as the answer. Shelter is not the answer to ending homelessness. Housing is.”

Gregg said 13 shelters applied for funding, asking for a total of up to $7 million. But state funding still only totals $1.8 million. 

In February, the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness announced the proposed funding for shelters across the state and 11 shelters were ultimately awarded funds.

One of the new shelters to receive funding under the updated system is the Project Rainbow shelter in Morgantown. 

Cassidy Thompson, vice president for the board of directors with Project Rainbow, said the shelter prioritizes members of the LGBTQ population experiencing homelessness, but is open to all.

“We actually don’t exclusively serve members of the LGBTQ plus community,” she said. “They are, however, prioritized because they are one of the most marginalized groups out there.” 

Thompson recalled a time when volunteers worked to place an older woman who did not have a place to stay at Project Rainbow, even though she was not part of the LGBTQ community.

“We have to prioritize based on the fact that we only have 24 beds,” she said. “We are centering a safe space for the LGBTQIA community. One of the only things that people can really get asked to leave our shelter for is making that safe space unsafe for LGBTQ plus individuals.”

Thompson said their award of $250,000 will allow the facility to have a new level of stability, and compensation for hard-working shelter staff.

“It is definitely a game changer,” she said. “We are going to be able to hire three full-time paid staff members, which is a huge relief. We’re going to be able to cover operational costs for a year, which is also a huge relief, because we have had substantial community funding. It’s really nice to just know that we’re going to be able to pay the rent on the facility that we lease and that people are going to be able to be paid for the work that they’re doing.”

But not all is well in Morgantown. Bartlett Housing Solutions has run the city’s shelter for years, but was not awarded any money under the new system.

Gregg said awards were distributed in tiers, with the highest tier being capped at $300,000 and the lowest being capped at $100,000.

“Again, we’re limited with the funds and so we tier them,” she said. “Tier five, we had a couple of folks fall in the tier five category, and those were not funded because we didn’t want to have the money stretched so thin that you’re awarded maybe only $40,000. That’s not really going to be helpful. We’ve seen other funders do that, and it’s not helpful because you cannot hire personnel. You’re trying to figure out a way to use the money, but you don’t have staff. We stopped at tier four, and the tier five folks did not get funded.”

Within days of the awards being announced, Bartlett issued a statement that it would have to close its shelter and has not accepted new intakes since mid-March. The organization fired its executive director.

Bartlett did not respond to WVPB’s requests for comment in time for this story.

In April a post on Bartlett’s Facebook page indicated they would have the opportunity to reapply for funding. But more recently, the organization asked the Monongalia County Commission as well as the City of Morgantown for tens of thousands of dollars in emergency funding or face a closure of all its programs come July. At a meeting earlier this month, commissioners expressed wariness of doling out funding without seeing the full picture of Bartlett’s financial situation.

Gregg said as the application process was being implemented in 2023, shelters were warned to start looking at other funding streams.

“As we move forward with competitive funding, anyone could be at risk of not getting what they’re asking for,” she said. “It’s important for any provider to diversify funds to look at other funding.”

One outcome of the fallout has been that some in the community blame Project Rainbow for Bartlett’s loss of funding, going so far as to claim the funding was stolen out from the city’s shelter.

Thompson said her family has been harassed, including her middle-school-aged child. 

“We did not want for this to happen,” she said. “As an agency, we wanted Project Rainbow and Bartlett House to exist in tandem. We don’t really have a say in what a grant funder chooses to fund and what they don’t choose to fund. But I will say that this was not our hope, this was not what we were aiming for. We were hoping to add to the services that already exist in Monongalia County, and create a more robust array of things for people to choose from.”

Despite the complications, Gregg and Thompson both hope the changes made to the state’s system lead to better outcomes for those experiencing homelessness and someday, an end to the problem altogether.