Chris Schulz Published

Police Begin Clearing Wheeling Encampment, Advocates Push Back

A homeless man sleeps next to a cart full of his possessions.Wikimedia Commons

Updated on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2024 at 10:35 a.m

On Thursday morning, Jan. 18 at 8 a.m. Wheeling Police notified individuals encamped behind the Nelson Jordan Center in Wheeling that they would begin clearing the site at 10 a.m. It is unclear at this time to where the displaced individuals experiencing homelessness will relocate. The forecast high in Wheeling for Jan. 18 is 32°, with several inches of snow likely overnight and through Friday, Jan. 19.

Original Story

A new camping ban went into effect in Wheeling this month, but advocates for the unhoused community are pushing back.  

In November, the Wheeling City Council voted 5 to 2 to enact a camping ban on public property in the city, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The city council once again discussed the ordinance at their Jan. 16 meeting, and its potential impact on some five encampments where anywhere from 10 to 30 people shelter.

Several councilmembers highlighted a clause that gives the city manager discretion to exempt certain camps. Council member Ben Seidler said the city was working towards the goal of having one managed camp, and did not see the need to do away with the entire ordinance.

“There is a process in place for you to request exemptions to specific camps,” he said. “It’s right there in black and white. So I would say, there’s not a need to retract this entire ban.” 

He asked City Manager Robert Herron if any formal requests for exemptions had been made for any of the campsites within city limits. Herron replied he had not received any.

“The discussion, I think, has focused on a managed camp and the rules and regulations associated with long-term camp,” he said. “I’m going to be open to short term exemptions to the camping ban, as long as everyone recognizes that I have the authority to do that.”

Councilmember Rosemary Ketchum, who along with Mayor Glenn Elliot voted against the camping ban, pointed out that the ordinance does not provide a process for the general public to request an exemption, only the authority of the city manager to exempt specific sites.

City council members say the ordinance is necessary for public safety and hygiene, but advocates for the homeless like Dr. William Mercer say the ordinance just criminalizes poverty and addiction. 

“I wish they would quit looking at them as criminals,” he said. “They have a disease, it’s an illness, when you’re addicted, let’s treat it like that.”

Mercer provides street medicine to the city’s unhoused with Project Hope. He spoke at Tuesday’s meeting on behalf of more than 30 service providers, who also sent a letter to the council prior to the meeting, to ask the city to pause the ordinance and ultimately repeal it in favor of other options such as creating individual encampment plans. 

“It’s all about communication,” Mercer said. “I’m hoping we can kind of discuss this and, and be a model.”

Such alternative approaches recognize the reality that experiencing homelessness is a complex issue that affects each individual differently. In previous meetings, council members had expressed hope that the camping ban would coincide with the opening of the city’s winter freeze shelter. But Mercer said shelters cannot accommodate everyone, both due to capacity as well as individual conditions like paranoid schizophrenia. He sad that since opening, the 50 bed shelter has served 120 individuals. With temperatures staying stubbornly below freezing even during the day and snow and ice on the ground, its just not enough protection.

“So no, we don’t have enough beds,” Mercer said. “Shelter beds is one thing. The problem with the shelters are you got to be out from eight o’clock in the morning at night.”

Mercer does credit the city for the efforts it continues to make to help those experiencing homelessness, like creating a daytime warming shelter where individuals can access health and other community resources.

The ordinance has drawn heavy public criticism since it was first proposed in October. The American Public Health Association, of which Mercer is a member, has put out a white paper stating that “forced removals or displacements of encampments.. endanger the health and well-being of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and impair access to safe, stable housing or shelter.”

Others believe such bans and forced removals are unconstitutional.

On Friday, Jan. 12  the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia issued a warning that they would sue if the city did not pause the camping ban over the next 96 hours. After no such action was taken at Tuesday’s council meeting, the ACLU filed suit in the Northern District of West Virginia.

Aubrey Sparks, legal director of ACLU WV, said the ban makes certain facets of just being a person, such as eating, sleeping, or storing items, illegal outdoors. 

“The reason we think that is unconstitutional is because you can’t say that someone’s status is illegal, you have to say that an action they’re taking is illegal,” she said. “So long as there are fewer beds and shelters in Wheeling, then there are people experiencing homelessness, then some number of people are going to have to sleep outside every night, and therefore they’re going to be in violation of the ban, and it’s not going to be a choice on their part.”

The ACLU’s suit is seeking an injunction as well as declaratory relief, meaning they are asking the court to find that the ban and forced removals are an unconstitutional practice. Sparks said legal precedent both in West Virginia and across the country is in their favor, but the exemption clause does provide the city with an avenue towards constitutionality.

“We’re not sure what the city of wheeling plans to do in terms of this new process that they’ve created for considering exemptions in terms of their potential destruction of camps,” she said.  “There’s a lot up in the air right now.”

The city could begin conducting sweeps and removals of encampments as soon as this week, although Mercer and others do not believe that will happen.