Trey Kay, Mitch Hanley Published

Us & Them Encore: 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. Many communities are struggling to provide support, even 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 focuses on support for people who are homeless. Tent cities have been a focus at the state legislature as debate continues over how 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.

Earlier this year, our Us & Them episode called Compassion Fatigue received a second place award from the Virginias AP Broadcasters for Best Podcast. 

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

Subscribe to Us & Them on Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher and beyond.

A man bends down to be on eye level with another man who is homeless. The man who has bent down is holding a microphone and wears professional headphones. The man who is bent down is conducting an interview with the homeless man.
Us & Them host Trey Kay met Randy Lantz on the steps of First Presbyterian Church in Charleston on a cold night in January 2023. Lantz, who’s from Georgia, said he’s been homeless since 2016. Lantz said after serving three prison sentences, he found his way “back into the world” after his first incarcerations, but this time, he said, he’s struggling.

Photo Credit: Julie Blackwood
A middle age man with salt and pepper hair smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey sweatshirt.
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 also wanted to set limits, knowing children in the church’s preschool program used that entrance every morning and afternoon.

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

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

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A middle age woman smiles for the camera. She has blonde hair and wears a winter hat on her head. She is taking a selfie.
Ashley Switzer and her husband have raised five children in West Virginia’s capitol city. Her grandson attends a preschool 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.”

Photo Credit: Ashley Switzer
A middle age woman with red hair looks at the camera. She wears a light green work jacket. Behind her is a sign that reads, "National Institute for Medical Respite Care."
Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 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.”

Photo Credit: National Institute for Medical Respite Care
A woman with grown hair smiles for the camera. She wears a black winter hat and holds papers in her arm. She wears a black hoodie and has a side bag.
Taryn Wherry, director of the City of Charleston’s CARE program, or Coordinated Addiction Response Effort, said the city’s outreach program focuses on those with substance use disorder as well as people living on the streets. The CARE program began under Charleston’s current mayor, Amy Goodwin.

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

“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.

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

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A man and woman pose for a self. The man wears glasses and the woman has short cut hair, trimmed close to the scalp. Her hair is gray. She wears a red hoodie.
A peer support worker with Covenant House, Sommer Short works for the nonprofit service organization that partners with Charleston’s CARE team. When Sommer was 21, she was injured in a car accident and prescribed opioids. Over the next five years, she transitioned to heroin use and said she eventually left home and became homeless. 

Short works to support people who are living without shelter, like she used to live. She said many of the homeless people she meets are living with substance use disorder and 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.

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A woman with salt and pepper hair cut short to the scalp reaches into the trunk of a car.
Short offers food and hygiene bags that she keeps in her trunk to homeless people camping in and around Charleston. 

“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.

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The word "HOPE" in all caps is seen on a concrete wall. The letters are yellow.
As Short walked toward a homeless encampment, she passed under a highway overpass where someone had written “HOPE” in yellow spray paint on the concrete wall. 

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

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting