West Virginia releases first comprehensive study on homelessness

CHARLESTON — A new study on homelessness released by the state Department of Human Services (DoHS) this week highlights the diverse demographics and challenges many people face across the state.

It’s the first comprehensive study of homelessness in the state required by state law.

SB 239, which lawmakers passed during the 2023 legislative session, required the Bureau for Behavioral Health to complete the study.

The study shows more than half (58%) of people experiencing homelessness are men. About 13% of homeless individuals in West Virginia identified as Black or African American, which is higher than the 3.7% of the total state population that identifies as Black or African American.

Nearly half (48%) of those experiencing homelessness were between the ages of 25 to 44, which Christina Mullins, deputy secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders at DoHS, said is fairly younger.

“It also kind of aligns with what we see in some of our overdose patterns, so we know that folks are going to be a lot more vulnerable in that age group to addiction and potential overdose as well,” Mullins told MetroNews Tuesday.

Mullins said there are complex drivers that are causing homelessness across the state. Mental health and addiction are the main reasons, but some have experienced an accident, the loss of a job, lack of affordable housing, being released from correctional facilities and other situations.

“Some of the folks talked about domestic violence, abusive childhoods, illness or disabilities or a lot of other traumas, but we also know from the study that mental health and substance use disorder were definitely also drivers of people experiencing homelessness,” she said.

The majority of individuals experiencing homelessness were long-term residents of West Virginia. Many cited the availability of services, proximity to family and personal relationships as reasons for relocating to or within West Virginia. The study found most homeless individuals were located in larger cities near more services.

“Where there are more services, we also tend to have more people in those areas and we do have more people experiencing homelessness clustered in those areas,” Mullins said.

Often times, Mullins said, these individuals are unaware of the help they can get.

“We’ve got to look at the gaps,” she said. “Some of the things that we saw are people not knowing how to access services, so we have to do a better job of communicating that and making that easily accessible,” she said.

Mullins said with the results of this study, DoHS and other state agencies are now better equipped to support the homeless population.