Facing Community Backlash, St. Albans Pastor Pushes Forward With Support Of Controversial Tent City

An encampment near the Coal River in the winter of 2019 in Kanawha County, W.Va.

A pastor in St. Albans has been helping residents of a local homeless encampment called Tent City get back on their feet. But not everyone in the town approves of the work he’s doing.

“They hate to move every night. They hate to bother people,” Stan Smith, a pastor in St. Albans, W.Va., said as he drove around the outskirts of town, pointing out the tucked-away thickets where homeless people have set up camps.

“They’re not trying to break into people’s homes. I’m not saying that some don’t,” he said. “But the majority of them are just broken people who want to be treated with respect and dignity and remain private and remain out of the public eye.” 

Stan knows these camps well because he takes care of the people facing homelessness in and around St. Albans.

This past summer, Stan heard the sheriff was going to shut down the largest of these camps, a place called Tent City.  When Stan heard the news, he did something big. He purchased the land that the camp was on. 

The camp was on private property. Now that Stan owns it, he’s legally allowed to let people stay on it without the fear of them being made to leave. But a lot of people in town aren’t happy about what Stan’s done.

Community Pushback

“They call it Tent City but actually it looks like a lot of tarps and whatever these people can gather to put shelter over their heads, a lot of trash laying on the ground,” said Rick Willis, the administrator of a Facebook group called St. Albans — Taking Back Our Community. It has 4,500 members. A number that is nearly half of the population of St. Albans. 

“The purpose is to return the community to its original glory,” Rick said. “You didn’t have homeless, wandering the streets, breaking into people’s houses, stealing everything that isn’t nailed down.” 

Rick’s group blames people like Stan, who offer services to the homeless. They say these services are enabling homelessness.

“You’ve got a church and a minister that bought a piece of property, that set up a tent city for some of the homeless vagrants,” Rick said. “Of course, there’s a lot of people supporting, there’s a lot of people that are very angry about what he did, you know, it was done kind of in the dark. It was unpublicized. But you know, St. Albans is still a small town and word got around.”

Stan said the backlash got personal. 

“They took my picture, posted my address, posted my telephone number. Posted my wife’s business, posted her name,” he said. “Encouraged people to dump garbage at our house and at her business and at the church. And they did dump garbage at the church.”

According to Stan, whomever dumped the garbage on his church lawn did it as an act of revenge.

He thinks their rationale goes something like this: You’re enabling people who fill our city with garbage, so we’re going to dump actual garbage on your property. See how you like it.

But Stan points out that he didn’t create this camp. In fact, it would’ve been impossible for him to have started it.

According to local business owners, this tent city has been around for over 40 years. Stan has only been involved with this camp for about a year and a half.

Train tracks near the Coal River encampment.

Credit Courtesy of Stan Smith
Train tracks near the Coal River encampment.

‘This Is My Problem’

It started when he saw something tragic.

“There was a lady feeding an 18-month old baby out of a garbage bag that was in a dumpster,” he said. “And it was pouring rain and the baby was picking up pasta off the plate as fast as she could and putting it in its mouth. And I said, ‘There can’t be any more this, this is my problem.’ That’s what opened my eyes. And then coming down here, seeing these people.”

Stan said he had a lot of empathy for the camp’s inhabitants.

“They feel ashamed of where they are. I mean, I heard one of them tell me and the sheriff this spring, ‘who would want to live like this? Who would want to live with the backwaters coming up to your tent door, or with mosquitoes or bugs or poison ivy, or in this situation? We’d rather have houses, but we’re just not to that place’,” he said. “They’ve lost everything, by either bad decisions some other form of poverty that came to them. Are there people who have made major, ugly mistakes? Sure. But we have too.”

The Consequences Of Simply Surviving

We mostly see homelessness as an issue facing people in cities, But it’s a very real issue in rural areas. Being homeless out here presents a unique set of challenges, according to Dr. Sydnee McElroy.

“One would simply be the fact of transportation and distance,” she said. 

Sydnee is a family medicine doctor in Huntington, and host of the medical podcast Sawbones. She said that outreach obstacles present a huge health risk for people facing homelessness.

“It’s a lot harder if you are experiencing homelessness in a rural area, depending on where you are to get to the services and places,” Sydnee said. “I think about that a lot when we discharge people from the hospital. We will, let’s say it’s a weekend and we can’t make them a follow-up appointment, will tell them to call. Well, if you don’t have a routine, if you don’t have a place that you’re always going back to, if your home moves about and you don’t have a phone number, that’s impossible. We have now created a situation that is impossible for you to solve.”

Living in a community helps people overcome those obstacles.

…in every study of life expectancy, one of the things that correlates best with a longer life expectancy is social connection, the more connected you are to other humans and to a community of people, the longer you live…

Don’t have a phone? Maybe a neighbor can lend you theirs. And Sydnee said the benefits of having a community go beyond being able to share stuff. 

“The other thing I would bring up is that, in every study of life expectancy, one of the things that correlates best with a longer life expectancy is social connection. The more connected you are to other humans and to a community of people, the longer you live. It improves your health outcomes to have connections,” she said.

Social Connection

When asked about living in this camp, the residents didn’t bring up the flooding, extreme temperatures, mosquitoes. They chose to talk about how grateful they were. Grateful to have one another. To have Stan. To have a place to sleep at night.

One of the residents, Wallace, is from nearby Alum Creek.

“The people here in this area where the tents and stuff are, for the most part all get along real good together and make you feel real welcome here,” he said. “When I was told that I could move into this area here, that really did mean lot to me because you go in certain areas that you try to pitch a tent or if you just try to lay down on the side of the road, I mean the police had to do their job.”

“And most of the times, you can tell that they really don’t like running you out from there — it’s just a thought there that you know, for sure that you’re really not allowed to be there. But, I mean, it’s really nice that you can come here and get a tent and not have to worry about anybody coming along and telling you that you gotta leave or anything like that.”

Another resident, Jamie, is very grateful for Stan and his church.  

“He would come in a pouring storm. And I mean, pouring like buckets of rain, it was freezing in the middle of the woods, to attempt to bring a stranger kerosene just to make sure they’re not freezing,” she said.

Jamie points out that in the arguments over camps like these, people often forget that each person facing homelessness has a story. A story where tragic circumstances have led them to places like Tent City.

“When you’re homeless, you lose so much you lose your dignity. I worked my whole life, always had a home. And because of domestic violence, I lost my home, I lost my property like that, and I met a lot of terrible people,” she said. “It seems like when you’re down, that’s when people are at their worst. And then along comes Stan and his wife. And you know, it was just like God saying, ‘Hey, you know, I’m still here with ya’.”

“He has done things for me that my family didn’t do. I felt really alone. I felt forgotten. I felt dismissed. And this perfect stranger came from out of nowhere, him his wife, that and the people that he worships with, came and they changed my life.” 

Stan’s First Encounter With The Camp

“Somebody mentioned that there were a few people that stayed over here,” he said. “So one Sunday night, at about 7 o’clock, I walked the railroad tracks, and I said, ‘I’ve got chili and blankets.’ And all these lights came on down here like fireflies. And they came up and they said, ‘You’re the first person to treat this like a human in years.’ And they began to weep.” 

Stan goes to the camp three times a week or more. He said he’d eventually like to move his church closer to Tent City when he has the funds. But until then, he’s going to keep doing what he can. 

“I think we have to actively get involved. And that requires us getting down and dirty. It means getting our hands dirty in situations that we don’t want to be involved in because we want to live as Americans in a world that doesn’t have these problems. They’re all third-world countries, you know, that have these types of problems. But that’s not true,” he said.

“I don’t want to see anybody live like this. But we gotta start where people are. We can’t start where we want ’em to be. The reality is, they’re here. And what do we do to help them transition from here back into culture?”