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A step in the right direction

Presbyterian pastor walks nearly 150 miles to raise awareness and compassion around issues of ‘houselessness’ and extreme poverty in West Virginia

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Several friends, supporters and members of First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown, West Virginia, gathered to see the Rev. Zac Morton off on his #Walk4WV journey. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — With a 30-pound pack on his back and a mission in his heart, the Rev. Zachary Morton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, West Virginia, set out Sept. 21 on an eight-day, nearly 150-mile walk to the state capitol in Charleston.

Although Morton’s #Walk4WV was primarily a solo trip, he welcomed supporters to follow along on social media or to meet up along the route and walk with him. Several people, ages 8 to 84, took him up on his invitation to walk alongside during part of the trip, including Nikki Bryne-Hoffman, a deacon at First Presbyterian-Morgantown and a board member of the Presbyterian Child Development Center, who walked 14 miles, and Morton’s mom, Kim Morton, who joined him for part of the last four miles.

Several people, like Mavis Grant-Lilley, 79, and Don Spencer, 84, joined Morton for stretches of the 150-mile #Walk4WV, Sept. 21–29. (Photo by Zac Morton)

“The road systems we were walking on were not meant for walking,” Morton said. Most of the time there wasn’t a sidewalk or enough room. “It put me in a headspace of it’s not just the effort of walking, but the effort of listening for cars, dodging from one side of the road to the other to make sure that I’m not going to get hit and I’m not going to be in any more of a dangerous situation than I’m already in. That drains you, psychologically, to always be alert and always have that anxiety in the back of your mind.” That’s what unsheltered people in extreme poverty face on a daily basis as they try to navigate a system that is not built for them, Morton said.

The 150-mile #Walk4WV route from the parking lot of First Presbyterian-Morgantown to the state capitol building in Charleston. (Contributed art)

The first day — the longest and hardest — Morton walked 26 miles, including a lot of hills. He slept in a tent on the porch of a home in Grafton that first night. About 3 a.m., someone walked up on the porch, startling him and reminding him of the emotional toll it must take on folks who do not have the safety, security and comfort of shelter on a daily, and especially nightly basis.

Tent sweet tent, where Morton spent the first night of his journey to bring awareness to houselessness and extreme poverty. (Photo by Zac Morton)

The impetus for Morton’s #Walk4WV campaign may have grown from seeds planted during a mission trip to Atlanta when he was a middle school student.

“We were going through an area where we were serving folks in a little soup kitchen, and there were a lot of houseless folks who were there,” he said. “And, what was said to us, whenever we walked through a main area, ‘Put your head down and just keep walking.’ Even though those were the people we were going to serve.”

He recounted the mission trip story not to shame his middle school chaperones, he said, “I get when you are a middle school chaperone, chaperoning youth, you want to err on the side of protection, but I think it illustrates a larger point that, in general, we’re conditioned somewhere socially to just keep walking by folks when we see them on the street and it looks like they are experiencing poverty or it looks like they’re houseless.”

Morton records a video on the last couple miles into Charleston. (Photo by Zac Morton)

Morton uses the term “houseless,” rather than “homeless,” because, especially when he thinks about folks in Morgantown — they have a home. “Morgantown is their home.” In our society, he said, we judge people so much on what we have or don’t have. “So, the term ‘houseless,’ it’s the house, a roof over their head — the shelter — that they don’t have,” Morton said.

Since walking is the primary mode of transportation for people in extreme poverty, that’s another reason Morton decided to make the trip from Morgantown to Charleston on foot. “I’m doing this for those folks I’ve gotten to know,” he said. “Folks like Dennis and Dave and David and Dreama and Cassandra and Gloria and Barbara and Kae and Delbert and Jessica and Charlie and Daniel. There are many folks who are a part of this community, and they belong. They are a part of Morgantown just as much as anybody else.”

The #Walk4WV campaign had a fundraising aspect with Morton and supporters raising over $6,500 that will go directly to helping houseless citizens in Morgantown secure stable housing. The funds will be used for things like rent, security deposits and application fees for persons trying to make the transition off the street.

Contributed art for the #Walk4WV campaign

Although typically a symptom of extreme poverty, people can find themselves suddenly houseless for “all kinds of reasons,” Morton said. In West Virginia, up to 80% of the women and children in domestic violence situations flee unsafe conditions with nowhere to go, often trying to live out of their vehicle — if they have a vehicle. Many LGBTQ youth are instantly kicked out of the only housing and safety net they’ve ever known when they come out about their sexual orientation. And, of young people aging out of the foster care system at age 18, 40% find themselves houseless within a year.

“It’s easy to make judgments about how and why people end up in extreme poverty,” Morton said. “It’s also easy to assume that there are clear pathways out. We assume that a person is in extreme poverty because something is wrong or bad about the person. Let’s move beyond those stigmas and consider every person’s story with compassion, grace and humanity.”

Morton created a series of short videos, several each day, to shed light on intersecting issues that may be keeping people trapped in extreme poverty and houselessness. See all the videos here.

#Walk4WV video topics

  • Day 1 — Social Stigma
  • Day 2 — Affordable Housing
  • Day 3 — Criminalizing Poverty and Positive Policing
  • Day 4 — Mental Health and Trauma
  • Day 5 — Substance Use, Harm Reduction and Peer Recovery Coaches
  • Day 6 — Living Wage, ID Documents and Red Tape
  • Day 7 — Supporting Direct-Service Organizations
  • Day 8 — Food Insecurity and Health Care Access

Pastor Zac’s mom, Kim Morton, joined him for part of the last four miles. (Photo by Zac Morton)

“The solution that’s staring us in the face, if we want to start to make things better and improve situations for folks in extreme poverty is, ‘they need a place,’ a roof over their head and walls around them,” Morton said. “That’s the very practical solution, and we can dance around all kinds of other ideas and solutions and parse all the nuances, and we should do that, but on some level there’s this really practical issue of ‘they need a place.’ Something is better than nothing. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Providing every other service in the world is great, he said, but if folks don’t have the layer of safety and security that shelter provides, then everything else becomes an immense challenge.

Day 8 and the end of the route, but Morton says the walk is just the beginning of collaborative advocacy to make a difference in the lives of people experiencing extreme poverty and houselessness. (Contributed photo)

“At a time when the need is growing and all the signs point to the fact that trend is going to continue, we have just got to think about how we had better take care of those who are most vulnerable here in West Virginia and how we expand access to all these intersectional issues,” Morton said. “It’s not going to take one person or one organization to solve these things. It’s going to take all of us getting involved where and when we can.”

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