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Group rallies against removal of homeless encampments

Photo by Alan Olson Demonstrators with a variety of signs protested Wheeling’s initiative to demolish homeless encampments throughout the city.

WHEELING — More than a dozen people bearing signs rallied around the federal building in Wheeling on Tuesday morning, seeking to draw attention to the plight of the area’s homeless population as city officials are planning to remove several of their encampments.

One of the event’s organizers, Nic Cochran, called for the group to return to Wheeling’s city council meeting that evening to make their voices heard, which they did.

The group, HOH Share, which works with House of Hagar Catholic Worker, were opposed to recent action to demolish the homeless encampments in the city, which Cochran said was an initiative spearheaded by Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, without the city’s explicit approval.

“We’ve got COVID-19 cases on the rise throughout the city. There’s a national moratorium on evictions. The city’s going against that,” Cochran said. “… We have worked with the city to try to work out a solution. We were working with the homeless coalition, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, the information helpline, all these local organizations to try to make sure what happened earlier this year doesn’t happen again — and here we are, it’s happening again.”

In April, the city took action to remove three encampments throughout the city, in response to complaints of criminal activity, a move which drew condemnation from locals and from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia due to a lack of alternative housing options locally.

The effort to demolish the encampments again this month has been met with more resistance, as the ACLU-WV filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the city from taking action. Arguments were heard Tuesday before Judge John Bailey at the federal building.

“It’s very disheartening, but I’m hopeful. I don’t like to see it coming to the courts; I think we should be able to talk things out among ourselves,” Cochran said.

Schwertfeger previously said the initiative was “all about crime,” saying that police responded to nearly 250 calls for service at the various encampments around the city this year.

Cochran disputed Schwertfeger’s cited numbers, saying that of the published reports, only 118 calls were to the encampments throughout the year, and of those, only a fraction were in response to violent crime.

“They’ve included every single foot patrol, all of it,” Cochran said. “Everything is reported. I looked at it all last night, and of those, 11 were actually violent.”

Cochran added that the group sought to illuminate the underlying issues of homelessness, such as trauma and mental health issues, of which homelessness and substance abuse are symptoms.

“We’re trying to start a public dialog between the connection between trauma, addiction, mental health issues, and homelessness,” he said. “The chronic issues that start due to childhood trauma, but also calling out privilege. There are so many alcoholics and drug addicts in the city who have the safety of their own homes, the safety of a roof and four walls to protect them from being drunk in public. These people, many times through no fault of their own, find themselves out on the streets.”

Cochran said that previous efforts to work with city officials have been largely positive, especially with Mayor Glenn Elliott, who he said was a frequent face at their meetings with various local agencies.

“The mayor was very positive about the collaborations, he was present at all the meetings. He (seemed) pretty blindsided by this action from the police as well,” Cochran said.

During Tuesday night’s council meeting, several people who attended the rally spoke about the homeless situation and the city’s actions to address homeless issues. A number of people criticized the city’s previously announced intention to remove homeless individuals from camps during a public health crisis. Others, including some who stated their address as being “in a tent,” came forward to ask city leaders to help their situation.

Councilman Ben Seidler suggested the city make an effort to make work opportunities available for homeless people who are in need of opportunities for income and are willing and able to make their own earnings if given a chance.

“I continue to ask that all of the local organizations that provide assistance to the homeless come together to agree on a single comprehensive plan for ending people’s homelessness,” Seidler said.

Part of that comprehensive plan needs to be a playbook that the city can reference when circumstances dictate the need for issues to be addressed at a homeless encampment or any faction of the homeless community before the issues get out of control and require city intervention, Seidler said.

“It is the responsibility of the city and local law enforcement to protect our citizens, including the homeless community,” he added. “However, when violence, drugs and other serious crimes are continually taking place, we cannot ignore our duty and responsibility to enforce the law and protect our citizens, which again, includes the members of our homeless community.

Seidler added he was “personally committed to working toward the cause of ending people’s homelessness” by supporting the comprehensive plan.

Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum said the community cannot adequately address homelessness or poverty without the full weight of the city of Wheeling behind the effort.

“We know that homelessness exists at the intersection of many other chronic issues including poverty and mental illness, which means we need a serious and comprehensive approach to combat these issues head-on,” Ketchum said. “I’m dedicated to helping strengthen our community relationships so that we can create holistic and comprehensive solutions that work for the long-term.”

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