Council Chambers Reach Max Capacity as Urban Camping Ban Proposed
Fourteen people spoke to council in opposition of a proposed ordinance banning urban camping. Talks of a managed camp, low barrier shelter, and eliminating proposed fines were discussed.
*Editor’s note: This is a long article, but please stick around. For an article about the council’s other business, click here. As well, an audio project complementing this article is in the works.*
The Wheeling city council chambers were at capacity at their October 17 meeting as residents, service providers, and people experiencing homelessness filled the room to voice their opinion about a proposed ban on urban camping.
The ordinance was proposed by Councilor Jerry Sklavounakis, Ward 4, after he and Councilor Ben Seidler, Ward 2, spoke in support of a ban at the council’s October 2 meeting.
The proposed ordinance had its first reading tonight. It is a near replica of a similar ban enacted by the Parkersburg city council on September 26. This ban, and similar measures across the country, have been deemed unconstitutional by the courts.
The proposed ban has no clear path forward to adoption as several members of the council voiced concerns and proposed amendments to it.
Before citizens could speak during the public comment period–held at the end of council meetings–councilors and Mayor Glenn Elliott used their remarks to address the elephant in the room.
Elliott spoke during his Mayor’s Report addressing the homelessness issue in the city, and to the citizens in attendance.
Although Elliott commended city staff for working to provide funding for the Winter Freeze shelter, due to open December 15, homeless liaison Melissa Adams later clarified that a significant chunk of funding was still needed to ensure its operation.
He also thanked staff, including city manager Robert Herron, for delaying an eviction of the homeless camp above the Nelson Jordan Center that was scheduled for October 13.
“It’s safe to say that there’s a lot we have to discuss,” Elliott said. “Homelessness is one of those issues that is very easy to find opinions and much more difficult to find solutions.”
Elliott noted that it has been an issue he and two councils have struggled to deal with since assuming office in 2016. “It’s an issue that continues to get worse, not better. Not just in Wheeling, but across the state, but it’s a problem we can’t ignore,” Elliott said.
The mayor touted the creation of the homeless liaison position, which has allowed the city to have a seat at the table in discussions with service providers working towards a solution.
“We’re at a crossroads now because there is a ban that has been proposed by another member of council,” Elliott said. He said he has not come to a conclusion on the ban.
“It’s important to recognize the status quo, as it has been, cannot go on,” Elliot added. He cited crime, trash, and the theft of personal property as issues that need to be addressed at homeless camps. “We have to be accountable to public safety. I think every member of council is committed to that.”
Vice Mayor Chad Thalman, Ward 1, said he believed we need to show compassion while working to solve the issue of homelessness in the city.
Thalman noted over $1,000,000 in funding from the city to nonprofits who work with the homeless population. “With all that being said, I think the rule of law must stand,” Thalman said.
“I think the homeless should not be allowed to camp anywhere in the city,” Thalman added. “The idea that anyone can camp, at any time, for any reason, without permission, and without rules, is something I disagree with.”
Thalman added that displacing people experiencing homelessness without any plan as to where they’re supposed to go “isn’t a solution–it’s a reaction.”
Thalman asked that an amendment be added to the ordinance to allow one, managed camp site to be permitted in the city for those experiencing homelessness to stay. “My expectation is that this managed camp has rules, and consequences for not following the rules,” Thalman said.
Councilor Ty Thorngate, Ward 5, said he would hold off from making comments until the public was allowed to speak. Despite that, Thorngate offered an amendment to the proposed ban on urban camping to eliminate the fines associated with violating it.
“The one concern I do have is what I’ll call the penalties,” Thorngate said. He suggested replacing them with community service requirements.
Councilor Dave Palmer, Ward 6, deferred his comments on the proposal until he heard from those in attendance.
Councilor Ben Seidler, Ward 2, said he had heard from countless individuals before the meeting, and over the years, and that his heart was with the homeless.
Commenting on the protest outside the city-county building on October 12 urging the city to stay their eviction–which was granted–Seidler says he’s at a loss for words that “no one wants to talk about the other side of the issue.”
“We have a responsibility to not only represent the people of our city, including the homeless individuals, but also enforce public safety,” Seidler said.
Seidler cited statistics from the Wheeling Police Department claiming 40% of arrests were made against people experiencing homelessness. This data has been called into question by some who cite the overwhelming majority of alleged crimes are for Quality of Life or Warrant Services. They are also based on charges before most have been adjudicated by a court.
Seidler stated many fear walking on public trails for “fear of being assaulted.” He says we cannot ignore the fact that parents are afraid to take their children to playgrounds where he claims there are needles and people sleeping, “with their private parts showing.”
He spoke about a Continuum of Care meeting, which was not open to the public, saying three members of council spoke for two hours and agreed to a plan to address homelessness in the city, including a managed camp.
He said that members of council in attendance, himself, Sklavounakis, and Ketchum, would work to present this plan to council in an “expedited manner.”
In attendance at the Continuum of Care meeting, along with the councilors, were representatives form several service providers, including the YWCA, House of Hagar, Catholic Charities, the Ohio County Family Resource Network, the Wheeling Housing Authority, Helping Heroes, NAMI of Greater Wheeling, and representatives form Ohio County Schools. In total, 40-50 members attended the meeting.
Seidler expressed upset about accusations that the ban would criminalize homelessness. “I hate that phrase. I’m annoyed by that phrase. I’m offended by that phrase.” He continued, accusing some service providers of paying their salaries on the backs of homeless people.
“It’s abundantly clear that homelessness is big business in the city of Wheeling,” Seidler said. “Some of these individuals who have accused the city of criminalizing homelessness are some of the same ones clearly monetizing the homeless population to cover their own salaries.”
“It’s time to start addressing this with solid facts, not stupid talking points,” Seidler said as he ended his comments. “Everybody up here wants to work on this issue together.”
Seidler expressed full support for “one, secure, safe, staffed, managed camp.”
Councilor Rosemary Ketchum, Ward 3, including the homeless camp above the Nelson Jordan Center, said her ward is “perhaps the ward the most impacted by homelessness.”
“Homelessness has been the number one most controversial and difficult issue we’ve had to deal with,” Ketchum said. She says she has made it a priority since being elected in 2020.
Ketchum noted that housing is not the only solution to the problem. “We know that substance-use disorder is a huge component to this issue. We know that behavioral health systems that we have are often at capacity and are not enough,” Ketchum said.
“This is a national issue that’s looking for a local solution and, in my opinion, a single local solution just does not exist,” Ketchum said. “I am not in favor of this ban.”
Ketchum said the ban is “functionally ineffective, and legally precarious, and potentially unconstitutional.”
“No matter how expensive or ugly homelessness might be in our city, a lawsuit against the city of Wheeling could be more expensive, and even worse for the perception that we would like to have as a ‘friendly city,’” Ketchum said.
Ketchum noted the issue is not easy, but that council has a duty to maintain law and order.
“I think it is also important not to conflate homelessness with criminality. My fear is, with this ordinance, if we don’t amend it to remove the fines, it is indeed criminalizing homelessness.”
Councilor Jerry Sklavounakis, Ward 4, the sponsor of the ordinance, spoke last.
“I don’t think the status quo should continue. I look forward to hearing solutions,” Sklavounakis said. Speaking of the continuum of care meeting, he said there were two main solutions brought up. A need to provide wraparound services, and a managed camp.
Sklavounakis added that a low barrier shelter was another solution to the project, lending support for the Life Hub which would create just that.
“There are some people that won’t acknowledge [homelessness] is a problem. This is a problem and I’m going to deal with it moving forward,” Sklavounakis said.
Sklavounakis said he agreed with members that the issue should be dealt with compassion, but that “we cannot ignore the rule of law.”
After the meeting 17 individuals spoke. Of those speaking, including business owners, service providers, residents, formerly homeless, and advocates, three spoke in favor of the ban while 14 spoke in opposition.
Ashley Costen of Catholic Charities of West Virginia said a ban on urban camping was “not effective, and probably not legal.” Costen said the issue should be addressed and that her agency was ready to work alongside the city towards solutions.
Melissa Rehbolz, local business owner, says she’s opposed to the ban. Rehbolz questioned the time and money that would be spent to enforce a ban.
John Russell, Wheeling resident, grew up in the valley and moved away before returning to the city. Russell spoke of how the nation “shrugged its shoulders” at Wheeling during its decline, and said he couldn’t understand how a place “who knows that feeling cna pass it down to homeless people.”
“What would you do if you were in that situation,” Russell asked the council. He said this was an opportunity for Wheeling to send a message to big cities on how to care for the homeless.
Oceanna Smith, speaking on behalf of the ACLU of WV, said a ban would further victimize people, punishing them for staying in the only space made available. Smith noted that people of color would be disproportionately affected.
Smith addressed Seidler’s comment about service providers profiting off of the homeless, saying these people’s goal was to “work themselves out of a job.”
Ashley Curtis, resident of Wheeling who experienced homelessness for a year, said the city needed a multi-faceted solution to the problem. Curtis said homelessness is a symptom of a much bigger problem. She said without the support of her community she would still be homeless.
Dr. Vincent DeGeorge, Wheeling resident and member of the Human Rights Commission, said he has had property stolen. DeGeorge empathizes with the council, but says a ban would only make the situation worse. He said political figures were “taking lazy shortcuts” instead of addressing the problem.
Kate Marshall, Facilitator of House of Hagar, said because of the stay on the eviction of the Nelson Jordan Center two people were able to obtain housing rather than scrambling to find a new spot for their tent. She says a ban would increase the duration of homelessness for people.
Dr. William Mercer of Project Hope spoke in support of a managed camp, saying a ban was bad policy. “It will look like criminalizing homelessness,” Mercer said, adding a ban would create division in the community.
Katie Clue, resident of Wheeling, spoke of how quickly the city responded to fixing a slippage on her neighborhood road that, if left unaddressed, would have caused people to break the law by driving in the opposite lane. She likened this to the proposed ban, saying the city should use that same “vigor” to help the homeless receive aid.
Carlee Ditmar, chair of the Ohio County GOP, said there were too many good ideas presented by speakers, calling for a town hall on the issue. Ditmar advocated for a ban on urban camping saying if the city didn’t make it a crime Wheeling would end up like “other big cities.”
Brandon von Fehr, Wheeling resident, spoke of his father who nearly fell into homelessness because he made too much for services, but made too little to support himself. Fehr said the city should work to reduce barriers for mental health care.
Julia Chapman, Wheeling resident, said a low-barrier shelter was an “insane idea” alleging that the project would attract more homeless people to the area. She alleged that service providers were profiting from homelessness.
Councilors Sklavounakis and Thorngate spoke with this reporter after the meeting.
Sklavounakis repeated that the status quo should not continue. He says he introduced the ban “to spar discussion so that we could get solutions.” Sklavounakis said he heard solutions at the continuum of care meeting that would support those in housing, but struggling, to stay housed.
“Other things I heard were a managed camp and a low barrier shelter. I think we need to take them all into consideration,” Sklavounakis said. “I’m not saying I’m 100% on board, but I think we need to have this conversation.”
Sklavouankis said he and fellow Councilor Seidler felt like they have been backed into the corner by some members of the community who have claimed a ban on urban camping would be criminalizing homelessness.
“That’s not what we’re trying to do,” Sklavounakis said. “And those are rhetoric that makes it difficult to work with people. When you attack me and you attack [Seidler], you put us in a corner. When you do that, solutions get thrown to the wayside.”
Sklavounakis said he wished the public comment period was a “little more constructive.”
Thorngate, speaking about his amendment to eliminate fines from the proposed ordinance, acknowledged that those impacted wouldn’t be able to pay it.
“There’s been other instances where we’ve decreased fines in other areas,” Thorngate said, pointing to community service as a “decent compromise” to the penalties in the proposed ban.
Thorngate said he could be in support of a managed camp, but that he preferred it to be “inside and out of the elements.”
“I want to get people out of the woods, I want to get people out of the tents,” Thorngate said. He acknowledged not all who camp want to leave. Despite that, he considers a perfect end goal to be an indoor shelter.
Thorngate said the ban on urban camping was reactionary after some members saw Parkersburg pass a similar ordinance. He still believes, though, that everyone on council is compassionate.
“I think we’re too a point where we’ve run into a wall,” Thorngate said. “We’re trying to figure out what we can do. There are ideas, and with the group that we have there are going to be solutions.”
Thorngate said the public comment period was constructive. “Utlimately, I expected what was said tonight. This isn’t something new.” He said everyone was civil and that the meeting went well.
The meeting lasted until around 7:00 p.m. Afterwards, Councilor Seidler was seen outside speaking with a group of advocates about the proposed ban and potential solutions.
Thanks for reading The Hudson Editorial! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.