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Advocates for Homeless Mobilize As Deadline Looms to Remove Wheeling Encampments

File photo by Eric Ayres – A homeless encampment in Wheeling is shown in early September.

WHEELING — Area organizations specializing in helping Wheeling’s homeless population are mobilizing to assist residents living in several tent encampments along Big Wheeling Creek that will be cleared out by the end of the week.

While the agencies offer a variety of services to unsheltered people, the task of finding housing in Wheeling is still difficult, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we’re doing is what we’ve continued to do for the last three decades,” said Lisa Badia, executive director of Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless that offers resources for people to find housing. “We’re available for folks to come in for intake. Even though there’s COVID policies and protections, folks can still come in.”

The need is especially urgent now because of a federal judge’s ruling earlier this month allowing the City of Wheeling to clear four encampments from the banks of Big Wheeling Creek due to an increase in crime and police calls in that area.

Wheeling officials had originally planned to remove the encampments Sept. 4, but a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia delayed that move. However, U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey ruled Sept. 16 that the city could proceed with the removal, but it had to give two weeks notice to those residents and coordinate with area agencies to offer support with the relocation. The deadline for removal is now set for this Friday.

There are nearly 80 people living in homeless encampments in the city, but the exact number of people in the affected camps varies.

“We’ve been in contact with the police department letting them know of the programs available when they encounter people living there,” Badia said. “Hopefully we can encourage people to come and talk to us and determine whether they want to come into our program.”

Mayor Glenn Elliott said conversations have started at the staff level between the city and area agencies about the situation, and police are also coordinating with those organizations. He said the city is looking for how it “can play a more constructive role going forward” in solving homelessness in Wheeling.

“We have a lot of good organizations doing a lot of great work, but the city has a responsibility about making sure they’re working together on the issues,” Elliott said. “A camp should always be a last resort situation, not a permanent solution.”

Meanwhile, the organizations are continuing on with their mission, even with COVID-19 and the Friday move-out date looming.

Mark Van Meter, captain of the Salvation Army in Wheeling, said people living at the affected camps are aware of their overnight shelter at 140 16th St., and men are still welcome to stay the night. He said women and children can be accommodated only in emergency situations.

“Our shelter has been in place 40-plus years,” Van Meter said. “The majority of those individuals have been in or around our shelter area. They know where the shelter is and they’re welcome to come in. Our partner agencies have certainly talked about where the shelters are, too.”

Van Meter is hoping they can implement a “winter day shelter” at the Wheeling location if they receive a grant from the Salvation Army. In that case, the shelter would be open to anyone throughout each day over the winter, and could also supply meals through its pantry.

“We’re doing that because we have no place for the homeless to go to during the daytime in the community,” he said. “That will give those individuals a place to get out of the winter cold.”

Youth Services System, Inc., in Wheeling offers a similar “freeze shelter” during the winter. City Manager Robert Herron said Friday that the organization has expressed interest in moving the “freeze shelter” to the former Ohio Valley Medical Center, which is now owned by the city, for more space to allow for social distancing. He added the city pays for portable toilets and potable drinking water located outside the Salvation ARmy.

Other agencies offer services beyond shelter, including much-needed medical care.

Crystal Bauer, a registered nurse and the director for Project Hope in Ohio County, said their “street medicine” team routinely meets with residents of encampments, including the ones that will be removed Friday.

“We try to be proactive and refer people to the appropriate services available to them. Our team is pretty resourceful. We go all over, not just in the city. Areas of the county where we get calls from concerned citizens,” Bauer said.

“But most residents are staying downtown or East Wheeling because they’re closer to services,” she added.

The ACLU-WV’s argument against moving the homeless encampments was that they would have nowhere else because of the pandemic. Bauer said outreach to homeless and resources available to them is more important now because of COVID-19.

“The need to help the homeless is even more. During rounds, we will talk to our unsheltered population, just like we do every single week when we meet with them,” she said. “Out approach is not changing. We’re doing what we’ve been doing for the past five years.”

Although they don’t offering housing, they’re able to offer outreach to organizations that do, such as Coalition.

“Housing is a huge issue when working with people who live in tents or a homeless shelter,” Bauer said. “We refer them to the Homeless Coalition and what times they could do an intake.”

Badia, who runs the Coalition for the Homeless, welcomed anyone who is being displaced to visit their office at 84 15th St. in Wheeling to be screened for potential housing, even if they have previously been through the process. She asked people to call ahead at 304-232-6104 for a quick screening about whether the individual has COVID-19.

“Through that intake process, we can determine what services we can provided,” Badia said. “We encourage people who are camping out, even if they’ve come before and were ineligible, would ask them to come back for intake again so they could help them with referrals elsewhere.”

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