Wheeling city council adopts urban camping ban despite overwhelming opposition
Five of the seven members of city council adopted an amended urban camping ban Tuesday. Many have said the ban criminalizes homelessness, and its legality has been questioned.
Wheeling city council adopts a ban on urban camping, with amendments, leaving service providers and people experiencing homelessness shocked and confused. The ordinance, which many have likened to criminalizing homelessness, will take effect January 1, 2024.
City council chambers were packed for a second consecutive meeting as the legislative body of the city considered a ban on urban camping modeled off of a similar ordinance adopted by the Parkersburg city council.
In a break from tradition, public comments were held before the ordinance was voted on. Six members of the community, including people who have experienced homelessness, service providers, and advocates, voiced their opposition to the measure.
George Smolder, a deacon at the Wheeling-Charleston Catholic Diocese, spoke against the ban. He also made comments about the work service providers offer, appearing to push back against comments made by Councilor Ben Seidler, Ward 2, at a previous meeting where Seidler claimed agencies were profiting off of homelessness in the city.
“We need to remind ourselves that these individuals who now find themselves being homeless have the same hopes and the same dreams as we do,” Smolder said, adding that due to a multitude of unfortunate events they have fallen on hard times.
Smolder, invoking his religion, ended by saying, “there by the grace of God go I.”
David Miller, who has previously been homeless, invoked the story of David and Goliath as he spoke about the organized effort by citizens to oppose the ban. “They say you cannot fight city hall. Well, my name’s David, and we, nor I, are going away anytime soon.”
Dr. Vincent DeGeorge, local activist and member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, asked the council to table the ordinance. Speaking of the service providers, DeGeorge said they are “near-unanimous” that a ban should not go forward because it criminalizes homelessness.
“Please, let’s continue the work. Do not criminalize homelessness just before Christmas. Let’s work together in the spirit of unity, in the spirit of the Friendly City, in the spirit of the holidays,” DeGeorge said.
After the public comment period closed, Councilor Jerry Sklavounakis, Ward 4, offered an amendment that reduced the minimum fine to $10 (previously $100), maintained the maximum $500 fine, and added an option for community service in lieu of a fine.
Also there is an option for community service, the imposition of a penalty is at the discretion of the Municipal Court of Wheeling. Rosemary Humway-Warmuth, the city’s solicitor, said the court already offers community service for those who cannot pay city-mandated fines.
Melissa Adams, homeless liaison for the city of Wheeling, stated earlier in the meeting that a managed camp could cost between $100,000 to $200,000, and would need to meet rigorous federal guidelines including having fencing, showers, toilets, full-time employees, security cameras, and be ADA compliant.
The amendment also empowered city manager Robert Herron to permit a “managed camp,” but no timeline, designated area, or further information was offered.
In an impassioned, boisterous speech, Councilor Ty Thorngate, Ward 5, spoke in favor of the ordinance, despite its inclusion of monetary fines that Thorngate opposed at the previous meeting.
Thorngate said the city has offered empathy, but that he believed it was being taken advantage of. He said he has heard unanimous concerns from constituents regarding safety and quality of life in the city. “Our approach has not been effective,” Thorngate said. “We are a country founded on the principle of law.”
Councilor Ketchum, Ward 3, said she is in support of a managed camp, but that she could not support the ordinance as written. “A ban is not a solution,” Ketchum said. “Fines are criminalizing homelessness,” she said, “even low fines.”
Ketchum spoke after the meeting about the ordinance and its amendments.
Asked about a timeline for a managed camp, Ketchum said “I think the time started ticking 15-minutes ago (when council approved the ban) on what it looks like to create a managed camp system.” She said, based on the information she is privy to, the city does not have a location, funding, or an organization to run the camp.
Ketchum said it seemed as though there was a lot of double-speak on the issue. “We’re hearing members of our city council say [they are not criminalizing homelessness], then you read the ordinance and it says if you are homeless in these specific areas you are subject to a fine.”
“Would I have voted for the ordinance if it didn’t have [the fines]? I don’t know. I wrestled with that,” Ketchum said. “But because it did, I couldn’t lend my support for it.”
Ketchum noted that there is an opportunity to amend the ordinance after passage, something she has said she may attempt in the coming months, although it is unclear if she would have the support of a majority of the council.
Mayor Glenn Elliott said the amendments brought the ordinance “85 to 90% of the way there,” but that ultimately he couldn’t support it citing concerns about the fines and the need for a plan for the managed camp.
Before the vote, members in the audience held up a sign that said “DON’T CRIMINALIZE HOMELESSNESS FOR CHRISTMAS.” Ultimately, the ordinance was adopted as amended by a vote of 5-2, with Ketchum and Elliott voting in the negative.
Dichotomously, before members voted on the urban camping ban, and spoke of their desire to fix the issue of homelessness, a proposal before the body’s finance committee to forward a $100,000 funding ordinance to council was almost stalled by Vice Mayor Chad Thalman.
Before the meeting began, Tina Morris, grant writer, and Melissa Adams, homeless liaison for the City of Wheeling, fielded questions from members of the finance committee regarding the funding opportunity.
Thalman grilled the pair over where the money would be spent, asking where the $100,000 would go. While Morris and Adams didn’t have a budget breakdown in front of them, as it is not required for this step in the process, they were able to say it would help the project move forward to achieving year-round support for homeless individuals.
The Life Hub is a non-profit in partnership with the City of Wheeling, the Wheeling Housing Authority, and local service providers, to offer a low-barrier shelter, the first of its kind in the state, as well as acting as a central coordinating site for individuals seeking care.
Thalman repeatedly asked where funding would be spent, and said he has not seen information about how the Life Hub would reduce homelessness. Morris stated she had forwarded information on this topic to the city council previously.
Morris has been working on behalf of the Life Hub team with state and federal partners for funding opportunities, something she says is a window quickly closing. Federal officials have funds available to further their goal of reducing homelessness by 25% by 2025, and state officials have halted talks to monitor the actions of the city of Wheeling on the issue.
Adams said funding from the city is crucial to unlock private, state, and federal dollars, as it would show the city has a stake in the project. Currently, the Life Hub is not fully funded for its winter freeze shelter, but is still expected to open December 15.
Thalman moved to table the funding request, in effect slowing down the conversation during a critical moment as the project is a little over a month away from opening. His motion ultimately failed.
The other members of the committee, Thorngate and Councilor Dave Palmer, Ward 6, approved the funding request to be sent to council for consideration, with the caveat that it be up-to $100,000, and that Melissa Adams provide a report on where the money will be spent at the next meeting.
Despite a lack of shelter beds, treatment facilities for substance-use disorders, and with the overwhelming disapproval by members of the community in attendance at city council, a ban on urban camping will take effect January 1, 2024. Those found in violation of the ordinance could be fined between $10 to $500, or serve community service.
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