CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK)—Homelessness has been a hot-button topic for years in the Charleston area. It has been at the center of political races and a source of strong disagreement in the community. Last year fifty people in the Kanawha Valley died while homeless or receiving services. A memorial service honoring them raised questions about where to go from here.

Wednesday, December 21 groups nationally recognized Homeless Persons Memorial Day. The Kanawha Valley Collective hosted a service at St. John’s Episcopal Church to remember those individuals who died in 2022 while experiencing homelessness or who were formerly homeless and passed away while in one of the local programs.

During the ceremony, prayer comforted the people left behind to grieve the ones they couldn’t save. All fifty names were read out loud. Each name, each loss, cut deep for the ones who spend their lives reaching out a helping hand and the ones who have walked in their shoes.

“It could be me, one of the ones passing away,” said a man who wanted to conceal his identity for fear that his family would know his truth. We are calling him “Mr. W”. “God looked down on me and he waked me up for another day and that is what helps me to get through the day. Each morning that God wakes me up that I know I have another chance.”

“Mr. W” is 73 years old and has been living on the streets for the last several months. His apartment was condemned and he’s struggled to find another place to rent. He said rest is hard to come by.

“It is like being a lamb laying down to sleep and the wolves is waiting on you,” “Mr. W” described. “As soon as they see the lamb is laying down that is when they swoop in on you and they devour you and there is nothing you can do because you don’t have any help around you to protect you.”

But there is one place “Mr. W” goes during the day where he does feel safe. We met him and others with stories to tell while spending a morning at Manna Meal in Charleston.

While our camera was there a team spent hours preparing to serve lunch to well over 200 people.

They serve breakfast too.

Earl Turner spent the late morning hours getting ready for the next day’s breakfast.

“I think about me every time,” Turner said. “I like cereal. So I think about me when I’m fixing this cereal. I think about myself when I’m passing out lunches and so forth.”

Turner came to Manna Meal to eat one day when he needed help. It led to a job he’s passionate about.

“If you haven’t been in the situation where you are hungry and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, it is difficult to function,” Turner said. “Not physically, but mentally and emotionally it is hard to function when you are hungry.”

Even though people come to Manna Meal for a variety of reasons, they go out of their way to meet them where they are.

“I’ve come up here hungry physically, but I leave full because of the kind word, not necessarily because of the food but because of the kind word someone said to me,” Turner said. “They smiled at me when I needed a smile. Somebody pat me on the back and said hello when everyone else had been mean to me and you needed that kind word.”

Amy Wolfe is the Executive Director at Manna Meal. She said no matter what people are always met with kindness inside their walls.

“People aren’t nice all of the time right, and if people don’t understand a situation or you are fed up with a situation people tend to sometimes not be as nice,” Wolfe said. “So the one place that I have any control over, our mission is to feed the hungry but feed them with dignity and respect.”

Wolfe and others who work at Manna Meal take time to really know people like Turner and “Mr. W” often thinking about them long after the workday is done.

“You know they are people. It is not a number. They have a story just like you or I do. They have people who love them and have people that they love. They have gifts, talents, things to give the world, people that are just experiencing homelessness that shouldn’t define them.”

Feeding the hungry is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle when it comes to homelessness in the Kanawha Valley.

“It is not a simple issue, which means it doesn’t have a simple solution,” said Traci Strickland, Executive Director of the Kanawha Valley Collective, the group that brings the pieces together. She led the recent memorial service. Even she was shocked to see the number of people who passed away climb from a previous high of 28 to 50.

“This year we had an individual who wasn’t in the area, had recently left the area and was robbed and beaten to death in another city. This year we had an individual who passed away in a house fire. We had individuals who passed away from long-standing illnesses. We had an individual who passed away from cancer who had apparently been living with cancer for a period of time and didn’t know it until she entered a permanent supportive housing program, and they helped her access health care,” Stickland explained, giving more context to the number shared at the memorial. She said some of the deaths were also from overdoses. But she pointed out that there were many other people who overdosed in the area who were not homeless.

Strickland said when she took the job she never realized how controversial and divisive helping the homeless would be.

“I’ve been surprised at the amount of negativity that is targeted toward individuals experiencing homelessness. I’ve been surprised that it has been an issue in our elections. It all has just been shocking,” she said.

In recent years some individuals and business owners have been outspoken about their frustrations when it comes to problems blamed on the homeless in general. She said often the entire population is falsely perceived as criminals. Strickland said many don’t realize that people with mental illness or substance use disorder only make up a segment of the population they serve.

“Othering I think is what a lot of people do,” Strickland said. “I think that is what has happened in politics, I think that is what has added to the stigma is you are othering people. You are dehumanizing people, and you are also lumping people all together.”

As the Kanawha Valley Collective and groups like Manna Meal continue to look for more solutions and ways to do better, people like “Mr. W” are hoping for a day when they can leave the label of “homeless” and the stigma attached to it in the past.

“I want to be able to move ahead, quit looking back,” said “Mr. W”. “I want to be able to stand up for myself one day and say ‘this is who I am, what I am, where I’m going and what I’m going to do’.”

The City of Charleston has a CARE team. Part of the team’s mission is to provide homeless outreach by distributing life-sustaining items to those who are unsheltered and working to find emergency or permanent supportive housing when appropriate.