Homeless Encampments Vacated in Wheeling; No Trespassing Signs Are Posted
By ERIC AYRES
WHEELING — Homeless encampments along Wheeling Creek that were slated to be cleared on Friday had been vacated, and signs warning trespassers had been posted at several entrances to the previously occupied camps that had been set up under bridges.
Heaps of trash from the former encampments were left behind, along with one abandoned tent that was left partially standing under the Chapline Street Bridge. An unidentified man passed by the area Friday afternoon and said a couple had been living in the last tent up until Thursday.
He said he did not know where any of the people who had been living in the camps went, but seemed stunned by the amount of trash that had been accumulated at the abandoned sites.
Although the Wheeling Police Department had initiated the action to have the camps cleared, a federal judge ruled that the State of West Virginia — which owns the creekside properties under the bridges — should be named as a defendant in a case originally filed against the city in an effort to stop the encampments from being cleared.
This week, no officials from the city of Wheeling were aware of how the clearing of the camps would be handled once Friday’s deadline arrived. The sites originally were set to be cleared early last month, but in the wake of the court action, U.S. District Court Judge John Preston Bailey had ordered that the occupants of the camp — as well as local humanitarian agencies — be given another two-week notice before they are asked to vacate the affected encampments.
Lisa Badia, executive director of the Greater Wheeling Homeless Coalition, on Friday said she had not heard of any action that had occurred regarding the removal of individuals who had been residing in the affected encampments. Although intakes for the day had not yet been completed, Badia indicated that the numbers of people the agency helps typically fluctuates, but nothing unusual had occurred over the past two weeks since the postings regarding the clearing of the encampments were erected.
“It’s not like we are unknown to the local homeless community,” Badia said. “It’s not a matter of people finding out about us. When they are ready to come in, talk to us and start the intake process, they’ll do that. Our winter shelter will be opening soon, and we expect that maybe some of them will come in then.”
Philip Stahl, spokesman for the Wheeling Police Department, said no officers were involved with the removal of any individuals from the homeless camps, and no one from the state of West Virginia had called to request assistance with clearing the camps on Friday. Members of Wheeling’s city administration and city council said they were not aware of the method in which the camps would be cleared.
Although officials from the West Virginia Division of Highways could not be reached for comment on the matter on Thursday and Friday, state crews had placed several no trespassing signs near various entrance ways to the sites under the bridges along Wheeling Creek.
The affected encampments had been located under the Chapline Street Bridge, under the Market Street Bridge, behind the 19th Street parking lot of West Virginia Northern Community College, and under the ramps to W.Va. 2.
The court ordered had stated that homeless occupants being removed from the sites must be given two hours to gather up any of their personal belongings. However, it is believed that the people who left the encampments did so voluntarily over the course of the past two weeks.
Officials stressed that with the two-week notice already passed and the no trespassing signs posted, anyone person stepping foot onto the sites without authorization will be trespassing on state property and violating the law.
There are a number of other homeless encampments in the city of Wheeling that were not subject to the recent action. Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger had stressed that the measure to clear these particular camps was being done so because of a rash of recent crimes linked to those sites.
Nearly 250 calls to service to the police department had been received in recent months for incidents in or around the four encampment areas, the chief said. Among the calls were five assault and batteries, seven domestic violence incidents, multiple property crimes, nine fugitive arrests, 15 documented overdoses — including overdose deaths, two or three fairly large fires, sexual assaults and indecent exposures, the chief said.
A similar action was taken at a homeless encampment earlier in the year on city property further away from the mouth of Wheeling Creek. At that time, the chief noted that some of the paths leading to the sites had been booby trapped with the intention of inflicting harm on people entering the sites.
On both occasions when police took action to have certain encampments cleared, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia threatened to take action against the city for threatening to displace homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.