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Belinda Harness Friday, June 29, 2018

WILLIAMSON - The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is reviewing its relationship with a Mingo County sober living facility after three residents alleged they were made to do labor and don't have access to food, toiletries and other basic necessities.

Two current residents and one former resident told the Williamson Daily News they were led to believe Serenity Pointe, located inside the former Sycamore Inn, was a ready-made facility with an established recovery program and access to job opportunities.

The facility, operated by the Mingo County Housing Authority, describes itself on a brochure as "60 efficiency, affordable units" designed to "provide residents a place to live while completing peer counseling, job training, budget and financial literacy, education, and ultimately self-sufficiency."

Instead, the residents found themselves required to do construction work on the facility's third floor, attempting to ready it for eventual occupation. They sometimes worked four hours a day and were told it was part of required community service, they said.

The newspaper is not naming the residents because they fear retaliation, such as denied access outside of the facility and phone restrictions.

Mingo Housing Authority Executive Director Belinda Harness, the facility's administrator, denied placing a work requirement on residents during a meeting with her Board of Directors on Monday. However, she said residents have done construction work on the third floor before, such as "removing debris and sweeping."

"They have community service hours every month," Harness said. "I think it's like 30-some hours a month. It varies."

According to the rules of conduct provided to new residents, daily chores are required, "according to the chore schedule." Residents said they performed chores, taking out trash and tidying up, on top of their community service requirements

A yearlong lease signed by new residents appears to be copied and pasted from a lease at Cantrell Manor Apartments in Williamson, also owned by the Mingo Housing Authority. The lease requires only eight hours of required community service, but it was unclear if the lease is referencing Serenity Pointe or Cantrell Manor Apartments.

The former hotel, which opened as Serenity Pointe in March, remains unfinished. The hotel's top floor, which is intended for pregnant women and women with children, is awaiting remodeling into apartments. Stonework intended to go on the outside of the building remains inside of a crate as of Saturday.

Most residents inside Serenity Pointe, which contains approximately 11 recovering addicts, were placed there by the U.S. HUD Housing Choice Voucher Program, designed to give low-income people access to affordable housing of their choice.

After learning of the residents' allegations, a U.S. HUD spokeswoman said the matter is now in review under the agency's routine monitoring of HUD-funded programs. There is no timetable for when the review would be completed, she said.

Residents also alleged they have no means to make money and are not allowed to leave the facility for work. Food stamps do not cover deodorant, paper plates and dish soap, they said.

Harness said she doesn't recommend residents get a job at first because they will be unable to complete required classes necessary to graduate her program.

"How they are going to work and complete all the classes and things," she said. "They at least need to complete the 12 steps."

Residents said they are being provided little to no food and must go to Jacob's Well Mission in Williamson for a free meal every day.

Harness said sometimes residents get leftover food from the deli at the Bulldog Market in Delbarton, which is also owned by the Housing Authority. She said residents get a weekly food delivery from area food banks, but did not clarify if the food covered the entire week.

Harness concluded Monday's Board of Directors meeting by excusing herself to an adjoining room where board members and staff prepared food, including fried chicken, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

Board member Gary Thompson grabbed a reporter's recording device and attempted to shut it off when the reporter continued to ask questions about the facility.

"We have a group here that's trying to enjoy a meal," Thompson said before letting go of the device.

Mingo County Housing Authority's Board of Directors is madeup of Thompson, Lewis Hall, Andy Dillon, Mitchell Bias and Erskine Davis. Bias and Davis were absent from Monday's meeting.

Travis Crum is a reporter for the Williamson Daily News. He may be reached by phone at 304-236-3539.


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