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Charleston trying to find balance in addressing homelessness


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston leaders say they are struggling to find solutions to handle homelessness in the city.

During a city council finance meeting earlier this month, Mayor Danny Jones referred to Charleston as a mecca for people who have “taken over our streets.”

The area known as Tent City sat along the banks of the Elk River in Charleston before it was dismantled in January 2016.
(File photo by F. Brian Ferguson)

He’s since continued to speak about homelessness on “580 Live,” his talk show airing on 580-WCHS.

Jones said it’s hard for people to understand what his office is experiencing. He said it has received dozens of complaints from business owners about people sleeping on porches — and worse.

“When they defecate on porches, they don’t call you or Covenant House,” Jones said. “They call me. We do the best we can.”

Jones said he’s concerned by people who are vagrants, squatting in buildings and panhandling on city streets. He said the Charleston Police Department has had to respond to the situation more than ever. He said he understands why business owners are upset.

“They don’t want to go to work and see someone homeless sleeping at their doorstep,” Jones said.

As the weather warms up, Jones said he worries more about crime. He said he’s not looking to displace people who need the services or trying to cause problems for local nonprofits, but he’s looking for solutions that work. He said as he tries to do that, he’s viewed as the “bad guy.”

“It’s a very frustrating problem,” Jones said.

City Manager David Molgaard said the city isn’t looking to cut funding to social services or to hurt the homeless. The primary goal is to improve the city.

“I don’t think we’re out to cause people problems, but they’re causing us problems and causing our community problems.” Molgaard said. “We’re hearing about it, and people are looking at us to solve these issues.”

Early last year, Jones ordered the dismantling of Tent City, a homeless encampment near the Spring Street Bridge, on short notice. About 20 or 30 people lived at Tent City.

Multiple council members and community members were upset with the way the situation was handled.

A resolution passed in December established procedures to handle dismantling encampments. The resolution increased the city’s annual contribution to Prestera Center from $48,000 to $75,000, which went toward hiring two full-time outreach workers who act as liaisons between homeless individuals, law enforcement and community members in Charleston.

Prior to the resolution, Prestera had only one caseworker assisting the homeless in four different counties.

It also requires the city to provide at least 14 days’ written notice of intent to evict those staying at a homeless encampment if it’s on public property.

Molgaard said the city is considering other policies to help the homeless, with members of city council leading the efforts. But some local nonprofit directors believe Jones’ public comments are misguided.

Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, said the comments are irresponsible and Jones’ definition of “mecca” is loose. She said she watches people come into Covenant House with next to nothing.

She said the peoples’ experiences are not glamorous — they wait in line to shower, and they use the same washer and dryer dozens of other people have already used that day. Allen said she believes the services Covenant House and other nonprofits in the city provide an improved quality of life.

“I think reducing suffering is a good thing,” Allen said.

She said people feel freer to make “dark” comments about the homeless than in the past. She said myths get perpetuated about homelessness, causing people to fear those in need.

Allen said fewer people identify as homeless now, according to the Continuum of Care’s local homeless count. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of individuals reported as homeless fell by 23 percent, from 416 to 320.

“At one time, it was a good thing to help people who are vulnerable and to keep them safe,” Allen said.

But now she said she’s witnessed different reactions. She encouraged people, including Jones, to spend time volunteering places at Covenant House. She said they would walk away with a new understanding of what it’s like to be homeless in Charleston.

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