ACLU of WV threatens legal action over Wheeling camp ban, demolitions
The ACLU sent a letter to Wheeling officials informing them of a potential lawsuit if the city does not suspend its ban on urban camping. This comes as city attempted to violate a federal court order.
The City of Wheeling’s planned demolition of several camps around the city where people experiencing homelessness reside is facing potential legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.
This comes after city officials, directed by city manager Robert Herron, sought to violate a federal Court order on January 3, 2024, when a single-tent encampment was targeted for demolition without prior notice.
In a letter signed by Aubrey Sparks, Legal Director of ACLU of WV, and directed towards the city’s homeless liaison, city manager, city solicitor, mayor, and members of council, the organization asserts that Ordinance 533.18, known colloquially as the urban camping ban, is unconstitutional.
The group cites insufficient shelter bed capacity and a lack of an alternative location exempted from the ban as reasons for their potential legal action. The ACLU of WV gave the city until Tuesday, January 16, to respond.
On Wednesday, January 3, a dozen city officials, at the direction of city manager Herron, attempted to demolish a campsite along the Wheeling Heritage Trail near Rock Point Rd.
Officials arrived at the camp, which houses two residents in one tent, between the hours of 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. The city brought two bulldozers, two dump trucks, and two Wheeling Police Department law enforcement officers to enforce their illegal eviction and demolition.
A bulldozer came within eight feet of the single tent on the site. A man, one of the residents of the camp, was inside sleeping when this occurred.
This action directly violated a 2020 federal Court order setting guidelines for how the city of Wheeling is to conduct camp demolitions.
The 2020 Court case that led to this order, Sturgeon v. City Manager Robert Herron, The City of Wheeling, The Wheeling Police Department, and The West Virginia Division of Highways, saw the ACLU of WV sue city and state officials to block demolition of a large camp underneath US-250 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his order signed September 16, 2020, federal Judge John Preston Bailey stated that Wheeling “shall post notices of its intended action at any encampment to be removed,” and that notices “must be posted at least two (2) weeks prior to the intended action.”
The order also states that Wheeling “must provide at least two (2) weeks written notice to the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless,” and other relevant agencies.
Both of these legally binding directives were violated on January 3, at the direction of the city manager, Robert Herron.
As recently as October 2023, city officials cited this Court order in response to a FOIA request by The Hudson Editorial seeking documents and policies the city of Wheeling uses to justify the demolition of a campsite.
All to say, city officials are aware of the Court’s order and therefore knowingly sought to violate it on January 3.
Ultimately, the city of Wheeling postponed the demolition of the camp, and posted notices at this site and at least two others ordering their eviction by January 17, 2024, at which time they are scheduled to be torn down.
In its notice to residents of the campsite, the city of Wheeling cited a policy called the “City of Wheeling Homeless Encampment and Transient Outdoor Temporary Living Policy,” a document which is not publicly available.
The only mention of the cited policy this reporter could find was a document from the City of Charleston, under the same name, which is cited by the ACLU of WV in its 2020 suit.
A FOIA request was submitted by The Hudson Editorial to review this policy on January 5, 2024.
On January 12, the deadline for a response to said FOIA request, city solicitor Rosemary Humway-Warmuth stated she had not received the request, despite other city officials not privy to the request acknowledging its existence on January 8.
Wheeling’s urban camping ban went into effect January 1, 2024. The ordinance prohibits individuals from camping, cooking, or storing items on public property without permission by the city manager.
The ordinace also grants the city manager the ability to create a managed camp, something Herron’s office and other city leaders have said would not occur until March 15, when the Winter Freeze shelter is expected to close.
The Winter Freeze shelter is open 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., does not allow the storage of personal property, and has a capacity of 50-beds. Since opening on December 15, 2023, the Winter Freeze shelter has operated near-capacity every night according to volunteers at the shelter, as well as local media reports.
January 17, the day the city of Wheeling plans to demolish several camps, will be one of the coldest days of the winter thus far, with lows projected in the single digits.
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