Economic times are difficult for many in our area. It can be hard right now for anyone to find a job even though Clarke County is just an hour’s drive from Washington D.C. Yet for some of our neighbors the economic downturn has simply made what was already a difficult existence just that much harder. One local group, “Help with Housing”, is working tirelessly to lend a helping hand to Clarke County citizens in need.
“We serve low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners in Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties and the City of Winchester” said Help with Housing’s Executive director Paula Costello.
Help With Housing (HWH) is a 501c(3) corporation that provides funding, labor and materials to make necessary repairs to the homes of qualified underprivileged and disabled homeowners in order that these homes remain livable.
Many of the homes that HWH works on have reached conditions where the occupants can no longer safely inhabit the dwelling. Yet, lack of income and options often forces the person or family to continue living in conditions that most people would find unlivable.
“We encounter some pretty horrible living conditions, especially in mobile homes” said HWH volunteer Mike Showalter. Showalter and a team of mission group volunteers from Mount Jackson United Methodist work closely with Costello’s HWH to identify and assist needy cases throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
“Sometimes it’s not even safe for our volunteers to enter the home until basic repairs are made. Still we find people living in these places” said Showalter.
HWH Executive Director Costello says that many people are often surprised by the pockets of poverty in our area because of the relative affluence of the region.
“Central Appalachia has been widely publicized because it’s an area where people really have little hope of climbing out of poverty” Costello said. “But our area does have economic opportunities so the need is different.”
Showalter concurs; “There is a culture of poverty in Appalachia. In the Shenandoah Valley we have people here and there who don’t have anything. The poverty may not be as easy to see but it’s still there.”
Showalter said that people sometimes only become aware of social need when natural catastrophes like earthquakes and floods occur. “There are many folks in our area that haven’t ever been in a flood but they’re still economically devastated.”
Older residents and handicapped people are often disproportionately affected by economic downturns. Costello said that elderly residents on fixed incomes can easily fall prey to economic problems as housing repair costs compound but incomes remain stagnant.
“This year we partnered with Jeremiah Project volunteers to get some ramps built as well as other repairs. We also partnered with Teens Opposing Poverty’s â€˜Impact the Valley’ volunteer week” Costello said “They assisted us with 10 projects, including demolition of an old block garage, and making a bathroom accessible for an elderly lady who has to crawl upstairs to her bathroom. HWH will now install a chair lift so she can get to her bathroom safely.”
Costello said that overall Clarke County fares better that most counties in the region because it is more affluent and is geographically smaller. However, Costello still sees concentrations of need in several areas of Clarke County including Millwood and White Post.
“We’re currently installing indoor plumbing for a family in White Post” Costello said.
Yet despite the widespread need for assistance, Costello scrambles to find funding from a patchwork of local, state and federal sources.
“Our Virginia funding comes from the Department of Housing and Community Development. We have been awarded an $80,000 grant from HUD HOME funds through the Northern Shenandoah Valley HOME Consortium” Costello hopes to use the $80K for accessibility rehabilitations and for larger rehabilitation projects throughout our service area.
“We also have applied for $112,000 from the Housing Preservation Grant through USDA-Rural Development to assist with larger rehabilitations to houses. My feeling is that we will probably get something from this source, but we have not gotten confirmation yet. This grant is to be used in Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah and parts of Frederick County.”
Last year HWH performed 97 projects with approximately 20% of that work in Clarke County. HWH receives $7,200 quarterly from Clarke County as well as funding from the United Way.
HWH is coordinated from an office next to the Josephine Street Museum by Costello, a full time employee, and part time project manager Chris Graham and part time office assistant, Joanne Parlett. Costello is currently working to expand HWH’s capacity with a $19K Compassion Capital Fund Grant intended for board development and fundraising as well as building a client database.
Most of HWH’s clients are elderly or disabled and live on less than $15K per year. Mount Jackson United Methodist Showalter and his team of volunteers help stretch Costello’s budget by generously donating hours of labor, tools and often building supplies.
Showalter said that several years ago Mount Jackson United Methodist sent a mission team to Appalachia to help with poverty in the region. While the experience was excellent, the church decided that the funding raising necessary for future trips to Kentucky could instead be used to battle poverty locally.
“When a person volunteers to go to Central Appalachia they have to commit to a week of being away” Showalter said. “Working locally means that people can easily donate a couple of hours here and there.”
Showalter said that his group learned a lot about the challenges of delivering assistance during the time spent in Appalachia, including not spreading the team to thinly by working on too many projects at one time.
“When we first started I had volunteer crews on several sites at once” Showalter said. “It was a logistical nightmare. This year we have everyone working at one site at a time.”
Showalter said that he has become the mission’s team leader by default but he’s pleased to have the leadership role. Showalter has a strong working knowledge of the building trades and directs other volunteers with roofing, painting, concrete and structural renovations.
There’s still a lot of planning required, even for local projects, but Showalter believes that the effort is worth it. Recently his volunteers installed a new cistern to provide a reliable water source for a disabled resident.
“We’re just trying to make improvements so that people can have basic living conditions” Showalter said. “It really brightens their day.”
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