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Wheeling Officials Want Racism Declared a ‘Public Health Crisis’

Photo by Eric Ayres – Rosemary Ketchum, chairwoman of the Health and Recreation Committee of Wheeling City Council, presides over the committee’s first meeting since the new council was seated in July. The meeting took place Thursday afternoon in person inside Wheeling City Council Chambers with all guests wearing masks and socially distancing.

WHEELING — Members of the Health and Recreation Committee of Wheeling City Council met Thursday to recommend some big preliminary steps toward adequately addressing issues of racism and homelessness in the city.

Meeting in person in City Council Chambers, the Health and Recreation Committee tackled a full agenda Thursday for its first meeting since the new Wheeling City Council members took office in July. Chaired by Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum, the committee is also comprised of fellow council members Wheeling Vice Mayor Chad Thalman, who is vice chair of the committee, and member Ben Seidler.

Presentations were presented on three separate issues during the meeting, resulting in separate recommendations for action by city council. First, the panel unanimously recommended that city council declare racism a public health crisis.

The committee also recommended the city facilitate the coordination and collaboration of efforts by local agencies that work with the local homeless population to bring about viable solutions to this ongoing problem.

Thirdly, the committee discussed the need to bring about significant improvements to Wheeling’s only city-operated indoor public recreation facility — the Nelson Jordan Center.

“Across the nation, governmental leaders are declaring racism as a public health crisis,” Ketchum said. “These declarations are an important first step in advancing a movement to securing racial equity and justice, which also allows for the direction of essential and critical funding mechanisms to help resolve the issues of systemic racism throughout the country. It is no secret that racism is alive and well across the country and also here in Wheeling.”

Ketchum said she has seen racist propaganda popping up across the city in recent months.

“I myself have been forced to contact local law enforcement when someone decided to place racist, white supremacist propaganda on my own doorstep recently,” Ketchum said. “We cannot ignore the fact that racism is here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It is sick, it is dangerous, it is unwelcome and it requires our full and unwavering focus to combat.”

Ketchum introduced Ron Scott Jr., cultural diversity and community outreach director, and Lori Jones, executive director, both of the management team at the YWCA in Wheeling.

“As leaders in this community, we thought it was important for us to take the lead in making sure that racism is recognized as a public health crisis,” Jones said.

“This is a completely original way to drive home the impact that racism can have on the individual and on the community,” Scott said. “With this approach, if you look at it as a public health crisis, you realize it affects you — no matter who you are — if you are part of the community.”

Another issue in the realm of public health that the city has been facing revolves around the homeless population. Recently, the Wheeling Police Department had been faced with the issue of a rash of criminal activity stemming from some of the homeless encampments along the banks of Wheeling Creek. For the second time this year, officials posted notices that encampments were going to be cleared and those living there had to move. The Americans Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia protested and vowed to take legal action against the city for taking action that would displace homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, city leaders noted that the homeless situation involves much more than incidents of criminal activity by certain individuals. There are issues of poverty, mental health, drug addiction, trauma and other factors at play in the dilemma.

“I ran for office so I can help our most vulnerable community members,” Ketchum said, noting that she has worked in the field of mental health and community outreach for many years. “As an elected official now, I can’t help but feel angered that our community — including city government — has in many ways failed to meet the moment to address our most chronic systemic issues.”

Several organizations do incredible work in the city of Wheeling to help the homeless, Ketchum said, noting that there is a reason Wheeling is called “the Friendly City.”

“Our social service landscape in so many ways in fragmented,” Ketchum said. “There is often a missing puzzle piece. I believe that missing puzzle piece is us — the city of Wheeling.”

Ketchum said the city needs to fully invest in forging community collaborations in an effort to build comprehensive, holistic and sustainable solutions to address the issues of poverty and homelessness.

“We’re not the first city to combat these issues,” she said. “But we have an opportunity to lead in an incredibly innovative and compassionate way.”

Seidler said he himself has been working with the homeless in his own neighborhood in recent years, hosting a dinner every Saturday evening for the homeless and coordinating the dinners with more than a dozen local volunteers.

“For me, over the last three years I’ve spent an incredible amount of time trying to understand how we can address this in a better way,” Seidler said. “I do not have the answer. We need a collaborative plan across all of our local organizations to address this.”

Seidler said the city of Wheeling itself does not have the expertise and the direct experience with the homeless to tackle this problem, but the local agencies that serve the homeless population do.

“They do this every day, and the challenge is very clear — we need these organizations to come together and come up with a holistic plan to address this,” Seidler said.

Seidler introduced Michael Heatherington, a homeless Wheeling resident who attends his weekly dinners.

“Michael by far is the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my life,” Seidler said, noting that he has regularly done work at his house doing paid odd jobs. “He’s had a rough life. He’s had family issues and has been homeless on and off for years. Michael needs a break. He doesn’t need all of these handouts. What Michael wants is a job. He wants to work his tale off.”

The councilman noted he has been working with the city manager’s office to develop a job placement program in the city that helps connect homeless people who are willing to work with available jobs, particularly those within the city where temporary, seasonal positions and other vacancies have been hard to fill.

Committee members unanimously agreed to recommend the city create a Vulnerable Communities Commission as a platform to help develop strategies and recommend solutions to city council to resolve these ongoing issues.

Mayor Glenn Elliott added suggestions that the city should explore the possibility of finding funds for a part-time homeless liaison official to help coordinate these efforts first-hand. Also, the mayor said a mental health court system that had once existed in the state needed to be revived locally to help some individuals address a number of their problems.

Additionally on Thursday, the Health and Recreation Committee discussed the future of the Nelson Jordan Center, which has been in service for 70 years. The facility is in need of revitalization, and officials heard from Rod Lee, facilities coordinator at the center, and Jesse Mestrovic, parks and recreation director for the city of Wheeling, about the needs of the center.

Officials said a tour of the facility is expected to take place in the near future, and further discussion of the facility’s funding needs, programming options and physical renovation or relocation possibilities are expected to continue.

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