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Putnam is affluent, but need remains

HURRICANE, W.Va. -- Janet Richards can't work. She is still recovering from a heart attack, her legs and feet swell and she takes 100 milligrams of blood pressure medicine a day that causes dizziness.

The Teays Valley woman is supposed to see her doctor once a month, but paying the $25 co-pay is sometimes impossible when it's on top of other household expenses.

Richards, 54, doesn't qualify for a medical card, which would eliminate or reduce the co-pay amount because she receives her deceased husband's retirement check.

"I haven't been [to the doctor] for a couple months now, but I'm trying to get to him this time, because he needs to check my blood pressure," she said. "I'm also border diabetic, because my mom's one and he wants to keep an eye on that."

Even in Putnam County, one of West Virginia's most affluent counties, the safety net still might not catch Richards, who doesn't always have reliable transportation and needs help fixing an apartment that's deteriorating.

A few years ago, Richards fell through her kitchen floor, and when her car breaks down, it can be overwhelming to afford the repairs.

"Right now, [the car] is up and running," she said, "but we never know when it's going to go down."

A newly formed Putnam County Advisory Council met on May 17 to discuss ways to streamline the limited social services the county offers and to explore ways to deliver those services to residents. Officials from the County Commission, Chamber of Commerce, Charleston Area Medical Center of Teays Valley and American Electric Power were part of the discussion, as were others.

"We want to evaluate what the communities look like, to determine if more social-service agencies are needed here so people won't have to travel," said John Ballengee, president of the United Way of Central West Virginia, who led the discussion at the Broadmore Assisted Living Facility.

While Putnam County is one of a few counties growing, according to the most recent census data, and has a reputation of being a wealthy bedroom community, there is still a population of the poor, statistics show.

Between 2006 and 2010, 10 percent of people in Putnam were living below the poverty level, according to census information, compared to a statewide average of 17 percent. The Putnam division of the state Department of Health and Human Resources reports 6,000 people in the county receive SNAP benefits, a food assistance program.

"When people think about Putnam County, they think of those big houses in Teays Valley they see from the Interstate but, for every one of those big houses, I can very easily show you a trailer park or a run-down neighborhood," said LeighAnn Harmon, the Putnam coordinator for Capitol Resource Agency. "We are no different. We've been hit hard economically, like everyone else. There is poverty in Putnam. It's here, I see it every day."

The Capitol Resource Agency is one of the few assistance programs with an office in Putnam. The community-action group provides help with heat and utility bills, rental payments and general financial assistance to those who qualify.

"The goal is to help people help themselves and eliminate causes of poverty," Harmon said. "We've been labeled a Band-Aid agency in the past, but we're working to change that."

The group helps clients create resumes and is developing a partnership with local technical schools to promote job training. Its services alone, though, are insufficient to cover the demand for assistance in the county, Harmon said.

"There's just not a lot of resources here so, a lot of times, I refer people to agencies in Charleston and Huntington," she said. "And they always ask, 'How am I going to get there?'"

A Salvation Army store moved out of Putnam in the late 1990s, and while it still serves Putnam, residents must drive to Charleston to utilize its help. That's the case with most agencies, Harmon said.

Harmon praised local churches that have well-attended food banks, and the city of Hurricane's water and sewer assistance program.

Hurricane City Manager Ben Newhouse said the city's plan is an easy way to help.

"We realized everyone reads their bill," Newhouse said. "We started letting companies pay to advertise by including inserts with it."

Money the ads raise goes toward a fund to assist people who might be struggling to pay their bill, he said.

Newhouse also spearheads an effort to bring teens to the area to help repair low-income houses during the summer with REACH Workcamp.

Another issue the advisory council is discussing is the lack of public transportation in the county, besides one taxi that operates out of Teays Valley.

Harmon said people sometimes call an ambulance to get to a doctor's appointment.

Another concern is not having anywhere to house the county's homeless.

"I've heard of kids that are 17 and 18 that have nowhere to go - no transitional housing, no domestic shelters," Newhouse said. "There's one in Charleston and Huntington, but I don't want to send [those kids] there."

The Faith Mission on U.S. 60 outside Hurricane, which used to operate a homeless shelter, now refers people to Charleston and Huntington programs, a pastor with the mission said. While it still tries to provide food and clothing to those in need, it no longer has a director.

"In every single community, there are nice homes," Harmon said, "but also in every single community, there are families struggling to put food on their table."

United Way's Ballengee said the group would need to start making some decisions on programs it wants to advocate bringing to the county. "Or, do we just say, 'It is what it is?'" he asked the group.

"We can't do that," Harmon said.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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