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Crisis is real in Eastern Panhandle

December 04, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Dozens of people experiencing a financial crisis associated with housing or living expenses in the Eastern Panhandle have been denied emergency assistance from a state-run program that apparently is operating on income eligibility standards set in 1984.

A West Virginia family of three caught in the current economic crisis cannot have a gross income greater than $566 per month to qualify for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' Emergency Assistance Program, officials said on Wednesday.

A family of four cannot have a gross income greater than $711.

One state official familiar with the program said Wednesday that people who meet the current income requirements would almost have to be "at the pauper's door."

Conducting an annual review of the Emergency Assistance program standards was one of several recommendations that the Eastern Panhandle Health and Human Services Collaborative presented Wednesday at the group's annual Community Leaders Breakfast at DHHR offices north of Martinsburg.

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The collaborative, comprised of more than 40 health and human service-minded organizations in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties, was formed in August 2005 to provide "one voice" for their concerns, according to Trina Bartlett, United Way of the Eastern Panhandle's Director of Community Impact.

"We could have come up with 25 of these" priority issues, Bartlett said after the public policy forum.

Instead, the collaborative's work groups focused on five:

o Closure of the affordable rental housing gap

o Oversight of predatory loans based on anticipated tax refunds

o Connection of people to the 2-1-1 statewide information hot line for social services and referrals

o Access to behavioral health services

o The Emergency Assistance program

DHHR community services manager Kathryn Boylan told those gathered that "probably 15 to 20 people a day" have been denied emergency assistance program money because they didn't meet the eligibility standards.

Offering further evidence of the economic downturn, Boylan noted that the food stamps caseload was up by about 25 percent and the DHHR office in Martinsburg also has counted substantial increases in applications for assistance with home heating bills from last winter.

Before outlining the Collaborative's recommendation of establishing a $2.5 million pilot rental assistance program, Glenda Helman of Community Networks Inc. noted that on any given night there are 186 homeless adults and children in the Panhandle, and most are without a home because they can't afford rent.

"This is not a something-for-nothing program," said Helman, who cited statistics that indicate rents in the Eastern Panhandle increased by 39 percent from 2000 to 2008.

Martinsburg resident Scott Kelleher, who was asked to share his costly personal experience with a tax return-based loan provider, said many of the other challenges presented Wednesday also affected him.

Kelleher said he received a tax return-based loan of less than $6,000, instead of nearly $7,500 he would have received in about the same time.

"We were just trying to get it as soon as we could," Kelleher said of efforts to get back on his feet financially.

"In the nicest terms, it disturbed me greatly."

Kelleher publicly thanked those who have helped him and his family get back on their feet and noted he benefited from last summer's free dental clinic at Hedgesville High School.

The dental clinic's success was illustrated in a slideshow that Jan Callen of the United Way presented as evidence of the community's capacity to address a need by collaborating.

Callen noted that the apparent lack of dental care in the community "bubbled up" from the collaborative, which helped make the dental clinic a reality.

"Look upon this collaborative as a resource for you," Callen said.

A second free dental clinic has been scheduled for June 26 and 27, 2009, at Hedgesville High School.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, admitted afterward that he was kind of caught off-guard about the emergency assistance program's eligibility standards, but believed they could be updated internally at the direction of DHHR Secretary Martha Yeager Walker.

Unger said he planned to write Walker, asking for a review. Berkeley County Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said in the forum that the commission would be happy to write a letter of support as well.

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