A little more than a year ago, 38 West Side businesspeople and sympathizers protested — loudly. The Religious Coalition for Community Renewal wanted to use COVID-19 aid money to start a drop-in and residential treatment center at Bream Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charleston’s Elk City neighborhood.
The two leaders, Pat Pelley of Books and Brews and Phil Melick of Elk City Records, sent a letter to city officials opposing the project, contending it would have an overall negative effect on the area. Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin had recommended the city fund the day center.
A short-lived furor ensued in what was an election year. The coalition and the city quickly backed off the project. But that didn’t stop Bream from implementing a low-calorie version of the original plan. Undeterred by the ruckus, the church sought grants and used its own money to provide clothes washers, dryers and showers, and continued its small food pantry and clothes donation programs. Both of the latter had been in effect for the past 100 years.
One recent warm day revealed a bustling scene at Bream. People who needed a place to shower, do laundry and pick up snack bags came and went.
Some “drop-in centers” have loose rules which encourage folks to hang around all day, but Bream Director of Outreach Derek Hudson says his facility doesn’t work that way.
“You’ve got to move them along after a while,” said Hudson, who is a volunteer.
About seven people sat outside. True to Hudson’s word, the operation — aided by a phalanx of social services agencies — moved briskly, without the feel of a flophouse.
Another part of the original program included drug rehabilitation. Melick, who declined to comment, and Pelley voiced opposition to that aspect.
“Putting a residential, Level 1 recovery home right on top of a drive-in service center and day shelter for the homeless — people widely known to be disproportionately involved with alcohol and drug abuse — is a terrible idea,” they said in their letter to the city.
Hudson says the program would have been tailored to those two years in recovery and working, but the city and RCCR backed off that also.
Pelley, an electrical engineer, has since moved with his family to Morgantown. He works in the mining industry and no longer daily runs Books and Brews, though he and wife Claire still own it.
So life goes on. It can’t go on enough for Hudson.
The 43-year-old has a terminal kidney disease and wants to do all the good he can, while realizing only so much can be accomplished.
Yes, the people he helps can be challenging, whether they mean to be or not. They always need something, or they wouldn’t show up at Bream. You have your “day crowd” and “night crowd,” Hudson acknowledges, with the night crowd providing a lot more nuisance.
“At night people don’t want to do anything but party,” he acknowledges. The day drop-ins are more likely to seek employment and a place to stay.
Hudson feels called to help, on good days or bad. His views used to be more conservative, he said, until his dire health gave him a taste of being vulnerable. The holder of two degrees can’t work a paid job because it threatens his Medicare coverage and all other aid he must rely on. His medicines are expensive.
As he puts it, the “organized chaos” work is honorable, even if, in helping others, disappointment competes with success.
“I can’t say I relate to what they’re going through,” Hudson said of the people he helps. “But I can relate to how hard life is. If I can just make their path or their walk just a little bit smoother then it makes me want to get up and do it again in the morning, I guess, and for the longest time I’ve had a hard time finding a reason to get up and get out of bed.”
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At least three new businesses have opened in the West Side district in the past year, including Nano Brewery, Dancing Dog Ice Cream and The Wandering Wind Meadery.
Tighe Bullock, who owns the old Husson’s Building on Ohio Avenue, has converted the space to a multi-tap beer pub, complete with an ash wood bar. He is ready to lease the space.
On another front, folks are also waiting for Bullock to turn the corner on the venerable Staats Hospital Building, a behemoth structure coming upon 10 years in renovation.
Elsewhere, Dr. David Patton has been mum as to when improvements should be visible in the old Fountain Hobby Center building. It remains an eyesore, as does a vacant Rite-Aid on the outer edge of the district. It sits at the corner of Watts Street and Washington Street West. A former theater, which used to house offices, has been empty for some time but is spiffy on the outside.
Challenges remain, but there is plenty of potential.
“All the storefronts are full,” says James Parker, 48, who owns Artistic Advantage, a tattoo shop on the corner of Washington Street West and Indiana Avenue. “The streetwalkers, that’s definitely an issue. But it’s not all bad. You look out on Tennessee Avenue, when they have it blocked off for different things, you see people out with kids.
“I don’t have the money to pack up and leave. I wouldn’t pack up and leave anyway. This area has been good to me.”
Customer Chris Parsons of Teays Valley had no qualms about the business climate.
“I’ve been coming here regularly for the last year,” he said. “I haven’t seen any issues. I haven’t had a bad experience.”
Another area business, Charleston Business Machines, celebrated 40 years of existence this year.
“For a small business to hang in there with the big guys is something,” said Ann Lewis, who co-owns the store with husband Jerry Lewis.
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Jessica Jordan, 30, manages Green Infusion, a CBD/synthetic THC establishment in the middle of the district. Yes, she says, people sometimes get in the business’ trash but that is not where her preoccupation lies.
“We’re not a necessity,” she said. “Inflation could be bad for [Elk City]. In terms of the economy we’re in, it could hurt a lot of people. People are concerned with groceries and household items. We need more jobs, more people with money in their pockets. A lot of people are desperate.”
Sodaro’s owners Deron and Karen Sodaro could be happier. They specialize in high-end theater and stereo systems. They complain about thieves and vandals stealing batteries from their trucks, getting catalytic converters stolen from cars and so on.
“I don’t want to be insensitive to homeless people but when we watch drug activity from our storefront ... We’ve been given the middle finger a lot,” Karen Sodaro said.
Both say the situation has gotten worse in the past five years. Bream’s Hudson agrees, pinning 2018 as a pivotal year.
Jeff Sebok, 60, has worked at Sodaro’s for years. “I’ve seen people high, staggering in the middle of the street. They congregate right in front of Bream church,” he said.
Hudson did not get combative when asked about Sebok’s contention. In good weather, he and others grill hot dogs and hamburgers for anyone who wants one, including folks across the street at Garrett Tire.
“We don’t see it during the day,” he said. “And we’re outside until 4 or 5. When we close, we usher people on. We should have a conversation with the Sodaro’s group, figure out what they’re seeing happen, and we can try to curb it. It pains me to hear it.”
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Charleston Police Sgt. Chris Bowman is busy these days working with the city’s CARES team.
“A lot of people have had zero good interactions with the police,” he said. “I like to talk and mingle and get to know everybody in the community.”
CARES stands for Coordinated Addiction Response Effort. He accompanies the team every other week to locate people who have overdosed or are dealing with addiction. He was on hand this day at Bream, a ramrod straight, buzz-cut figure who stood out in the room.
The new owners of Nano Brewery are supportive of the Bream program, as are Tennessee Avenue businesses Kinship Goods, January’s Academy of Dance and the Vandalia Company. All four donate funds to the people Bream helps. Their money pays for Bream clients to clean up trash around dumpsters and mow some grass.
Nano Brewery owners Jennifer and Kenny Graley opened their business about six months ago. Kenny Graley said the positives of the neighborhood attracted him — specific boutique-type businesses which might draw foot traffic. He doesn’t mind helping out at Bream when he can.
“We get along with everybody,” Graley said. “We’re not trying to do anything crazy here.