Community Advocates Say 'NO' to Ban on Urban Camping, Evictions of Homeless People
The City of Wheeling is considering a ban on urban camping, modeled off a similar ordinance adopted by Parkersburg. Advocates say this will cause more problems.
The Wheeling City Council Chambers were full of advocates for people experiencing homelessness tonight, Tuesday, October 3, after the City Council of Parkersburg, West Virginia, approved a ban on urban camping by a vote of 7-1 on September 26, sparking concerns that a similar ordinance could be proposed in Wheeling.
The Parkersburg ordinance prohibits individuals from camping on “any street, sidewalk, alley, easement, park, nature preserve, conservation park, parking lots, public grounds, public right of way, or under any bridge or viaduct.” Those found in violation of the ordinance, who would be overwhelmingly poor and experiencing homelessness, could face fines of no less than $100 or more than $500.
Community advocates for people experiencing homelessness in the City of Wheeling were alarmed when an article in The Intelligencer was published on September 30 where City Manager Robert Herron stated he “anticipate[s] that there will be a discussion at city council on the Parkersburg ordinance.”
This debate also comes after City Manager Robert Herron directed Homeless Liaison Melissa Adams to provide a two-week eviction notice to an encampment on the Grandview hillside overlooking downtown and East Wheeling. Adams has worked to prevent the closure of the encampment over the last year.
In her role as Homeless Liaison, Adams has had to shut down other, smaller camps which reside along waterways, under bridges, and in public right-of-ways. The East Wheeling encampment has long been a space where people experiencing homelessness could go without fear of eviction.
Other factors leading up to today’s meeting include the last city council meeting where a disgruntled city employee claimed he had been assaulted by a person experiencing homelessness while the employee was working at the East Wheeling campsite. Others in the community have disputed the claim, saying the individual who allegedly assaulted the employee owned the property where the incident occurred.
Councilor Jerry Sklavounakis, Ward 4, used his council remarks to address the community advocates, saying the issue regarding people experiencing homelessness needed to be addressed.
“We can all agree it’s an issue,” Sklavounakis said. He continued, saying it was in the best interest of the community to make it unlawful to camp on public lands in the city. Sklavounakis cited a “statistic provided by the Wheeling Police Department” alleging 40% of “charges” in the last three months related to people experiencing homelessness.
Councilor Ben Seidler, Ward 2, echoed Sklavounakis’ comments, saying “homelessness is out of control.” He cited concerns by families and other community members about public safety and “defecation on streets and alleys.”
At the end of the meeting seven members of the public voiced their concerns about any proposed order regarding the prohibition of urban camping, as well as the eviction notice given to residents of the East Wheeling encampment.
Chad Wait, Wheeling resident and former person experiencing homelessness, said he felt like the city was “kicking the can down the road.”
“We’ve been here many times,” Wait said. “It hurts to come up here and go through this every year.”
Wait asked the council what people experiencing homelessness were supposed to do if this potential ordinance were to be proposed and adopted. “I don’t see how this creates a pathway to opportunity,” Wait said.
Conner Morrison, Wheeling resident, read a letter from Beth Collins of the Sisters of St. Joseph Health and Wellness Foundation in which Collins accused the city of using Homeless Liaison Melissa Adams as a “landlord rather than an advocate.”
Collins argues in her letter that an ordinance banning urban camping would see an increase in crime, would waste the time of the Wheeling Police Department, and would cause more harm.
Ryan Ewing, Wheeling resident and former person experiencing homelessness, pointed to a lack of affordable housing as the number one cause of homelessness. Ewing stated that without a safe place for folks to set up camp there is no way these people can focus on fixing the issues that caused them to become homeless.
John Harkelroad, Ashley Costen, and Martha Wright, also expressed their concern over a potential ordinance banning urban camping, and asked the city to work to create a safe space for people experiencing homelessness.
Kate Marshall, Facilitator of the House of Hagar in East Wheeling, said she and other advocates would be left to deal with the aftermath of the eviction of residents at the East Wheeling encampment.
The House of Hagar provides, among other things, meals and assistance seeking care to those experiencing homelessness.
Marshall said that if people are banned from camping on public property, “where can they go,” citing a lack of shelter capacity. She implored the council not to “criminalize human existence.”
After the public comment period Mayor Glenn Elliott clarified that the eviction notice was a city employee directive, not from council. However, if the council disagreed with Herron’s directive to serve an eviction at the East Wheeling encampment they could instruct him to reverse the decision.
Elliott also stated that no ordinance banning urban camping had been proposed. This does not address the fact that Herron spoke with The Intelligencer saying he expected the conversation to come up at a future council meeting.
Elliott asked those who spoke not to assume the motives of the council, saying “this is a tough issue” that cities across the nation are experiencing due to a lack of support from federal and state partners.
Kate Marshall spoke with this reporter after the meeting, pushing back against Elliott’s attempt to distance the council from the city’s decision to close down the East Wheeling encampment.
“[The city] would go to one camp and tell them they have to leave, funneling them toward [the East Wheeling encampment],” Marshall said. Marshall says she wonders if this was an intentional strategy in the lead up of a potential ban.
“They don’t have an alternative,” Marshall said of people experiencing homelessness if a ban on urban camping is enacted. “Worse case scenario they will be imprisoned or die trying to hide from folks [enforcing the ban].” This could include individuals staying in dilapidated, abandoned buildings for shelter.
“If you ban people from public land they have to seek private property to hide themselves. While they’re spending their days finding a solution, they are not in a position to work on long term solutions,” Marshall said.
Councilor Rosemary Ketchum, Ward 3, which includes the East Wheeling encampment, also spoke with this reporter after the meeting. Ketchum says it is true people have been directed to stay at the encampment, and that as it has grown business owners, residents, and others have expressed concerns that the area is not well managed, and there exists a criminal aspect that has become untenable.
“For those housed there, speakers made a good point that there needs to be another option,” Ketchum said. She said a managed camp could be a temporary solution.
A managed camp would be a designated place for people experiencing homelessness to reside without fear of being evicted, with someone managing the site.
Ketchum noted a managed camp existed in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic on 18th Street under the US-250 overpass. The site offered bathrooms, showers, food, medical care, and other essential services to people experiencing homelessness from 2020 to 2021.
The encampment was ultimately shuttered after West Virginia Department of Highway officials closed it down.
“As we get closer to the winter months we no longer can say ‘we’ll figure it out,” Ketchum said. “We have to have it figured out.” She noted the Life Hub will have its winter shelter open at the First English Lutheran Church on the corner of 14th Street and Chapline Street.
Speaking about the obstacles cities encounter in working to solve the issue of homelessness, Ketchum noted that it is not a uniquely Wheeling problem. “If San Francisco can’t handle it neither can we,” she said.
Ketchum also noted that this is not just an issue with access to housing, but also mental health and drug recovery programs. “We have a serious mental health and drug use issue,” Ketchum said. “This is a conversation about sickness.”
Councilor Ketchum said she would not support an ordinance banning urban camping if it was similar to the Parkersburg ban, but she said if one is proposed in Wheeling it likely already has the votes.
Those wishing to speak at city council meetings should plan to arrive 15 minutes early and add their name to the sign-up sheet posted as they enter the room.
For other news about Tuesday’s city council meeting click here.
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