It’s never easy being homeless and that’s especially true in Charleston.
For the second time this year, Mayor Danny Jones has impacted the city’s homeless population by removing structures used by them. First it was tents, then park benches.
Jones maintains city officials had little choice about how to handle these situations.
But a leading homeless advocate believes this is part of the ongoing “criminalization” of the homeless.
West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Zach Brown also believes this illustrates the work that remains to be done to effectively help people needing housing.
“I wouldn’t call these actions an all-out war on the homeless, or anything that conspiratorial. But it is part of the ongoing reaction to what becomes a very public issue when it becomes so visible,” he said.
“It also fails to address why this is happening, and how this is a symptom of something larger in any given municipality.”
Jones cited frigid temperatures as part of the reason for dismantling a makeshift tent campsite along the Elk River, noting that it was not safe for people to be sleeping outside in the January weather.
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As a result, the displaced people were referred to shelters, Jones said.
Additionally, property owner Waste Management objected to the approximately 30 people trespassing and wanted them removed. Other business owners in the area had also complained about the homeless individuals creating potential public health and safety hazards by building fires for warmth, he said.
Earlier this month, citizen complaints were the basis for seven benches having been removed from the downtown Lee Street Triangle. By using the benches as a place to sleep, the homeless were also intimidating people and adversely impacting businesses there, Jones said.
Trash was also accumulating in the area, and belongings were being stored under some of the benches.
“It’s important to remember that this happened in one specific area and to only a few benches. There are still many areas where the homeless go downtown to gather, but something had to be done in that instance,” he said.
“No one needs to go hungry or not have shelter because there are plenty of those kinds of resources available for anyone who wants them. But not everyone is going to seek them out, and then we have these kinds of situations that must be dealt with,” he said.
Brown said most towns – including Charleston – make a good-hearted effort with the homeless but even public officials don’t always know the best way to address this problem.
It’s important to know how to handle the federal/state money dedicated to improving homelessness rates.
“It may be the case that a community says it doesn’t have the resources to deal with homelessness, but I don’t know any place in America that really has all the resources it needs to do this. I don’t know anyplace that has enough affordable house. But that’s not an excuse to not do the work, so we still keep going,” he said.
There is some good news because the state’s street homeless numbers have dropped by about 70 percent in the past year according to the annual Point in Time Count. It’s an indication that efforts to make housing connections for the homeless are working, he said.