Homelessness and substance abuse have been affecting Rainelle residents for years, but that may change now that a dedicated group of people has decided to join together to address these problems.
According to John Wyatt, Rainelle resident and town council member, something needs to be done to help those in town. So, he decided to ask a group of citizens, including police officers, mental health counselors, pastors and other community leaders, to get together and discuss compassionate ways to solve Rainelle’s problems. They held their first meeting in March.
“These have been ongoing problems and it just seemed like a good idea to get concerned people together to try and solve them; not just yell and scream about them, but really brainstorm about solutions,” Wyatt said. “To me, it’s a first step. It’s a good process. We hope to bring about some solutions.”
Wyatt said that the first meeting’s discussions centered around the causes for Rainelle’s increase in homelessness and substance abuse and the future opening of God’s Way Home Inc., an organization that will provide substance abuse therapy to those in the community.
Wyatt explained that the 2016 flood caused an increase in abandoned homes and buildings throughout Rainelle. It was at this time, that residents began to notice an increase in the number of squatters.
He said he heard the rumor that other cities have brought those experiencing homelessness to Rainelle, but there is no proof of that. However, he does note that “the empty buildings are like an invitation to come.”
“Many of the people staying in these abandoned places are native to the area,” Wyatt noted. Unfortunately, the county ran out of funding to reclaim or tear down many of these flood-damaged properties, so there is no plan on what to do with them at this time, Wyatt added.
As for the substance abuse issues, Wyatt said the Greenbrier County Health Department recently held a harm reduction program in Rainelle where they tried to curb drug-related issues by providing sanitary needles and Narcan — a drug used to save those who have overdosed on opioids. However, that program did not go over well with many who live in the town, and it is no longer provided in Rainelle.
“Something needs to be done,” Wyatt said of the drug problem. “In just western Greenbrier County, in the last four months or so, there have been 14-15 overdoses or drug-related deaths.”
“Most of those deaths have been in those under age 40,” Wyatt continued. “It is something we are going to have to address.”
Andrew Bailes, future director of the nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation center God’s Way Home Inc. and meeting attendee, said that if he receives the Inspiring Hope grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the facility at 477 Main Street could open as soon as July 1.
Since renovation work began on the building a couple of years ago, Bailes noted that the opening of the facility has been somewhat controversial for Rainelle residents who are concerned that its presence in town will exacerbate the drug problem. However, he said that will not be the case.
“We want to help everybody who wants help with recovery and to get off the streets, but it will take a collaborative effort,” Bailes said.
Bailes noted that even though God’s Way Home Inc. is not yet officially open, he still helps those who wish to overcome substance addictions through his pastoral work with the Orient Hill Freewill Baptist Church. He said he can always be reached on his cell phone at 304-646-6655.
“I know a lot of these people on a first-name basis,” Bailes said of those seen walking through town with backpacks. “I deal with people every day.”
“We have had a lot of success stories,” Bailes added. “It is possible for people to get off drugs, end their homelessness, and be clean.”
West Virginia State Police Sergeant Steven Murphy, commander of the Rainelle detachment and concerned area resident, confirmed that the drug problem in Rainelle is bad, and it leads to most of the thefts that happen in the area.
“Stealing copper from abandoned homes and using abandoned buildings as a place to hang out and do drugs are what we commonly find,” Murphy explained. “Typically, the drug of choice is methamphetamine for those in the 20-45 age group. However, it is not uncommon to see a person in their 60’s using.”
According to Murphy, the ease of making the drug methamphetamine in shake and bake labs has caused an increase in use.
Murphy said that he understands why local residents become scared when they see a person walking around town with a backpack, and he understands the concern that people have regarding abandoned buildings.
“Should Rainelle residents be scared? Yes and no,” Murphy said. “We do have a lot of theft in town and there is always a chance that a person could be stolen from. However, we still don’t have a lot of violent crimes. We don’t have people being robbed at gunpoint. Most of the crime is nonviolent.”
He added that he believes Rainelle is still a safe place to live, but it does need more opportunities for good-paying jobs and organized activities like BINGO at the fire department or town dinners that people could enjoy together.
Until the town of Rainelle can develop a complete police force again, Murphy said that the West Virginia State Police has been answering most of the 911 calls for service and that the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Department shares the load.
“We are just doing our job like we have always done,” Murphy assured. “We are doing our best to be vigilant, follow-through and make arrests.”
Many Rainelle residents wish to help officers find those guilty of committing crimes or squatting in abandoned buildings, but Murphy said that personal safety should always be their first priority.
“Document what a suspicious person is driving, or wearing, and contact the state police when it is safe to do so,” Murphy stated. “Don’t confront anyone.”
Also, using a cell phone to take videos or photos of suspicious activity should be done safely, Murphy continued.
“Everybody needs to go back to the 1980s when neighbors watched out for each other,” Murphy concluded.
Although these meetings are not open to the public, community leaders are welcome to attend and offer their expertise to find real solutions to these problems. For more information, Wyatt may be reached at 304-438-6047.