When the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department closed its harm reduction programs, one of the biggest criticisms of the program was that it led to an increase in crime, vagrancy and homelessness. Those claims are not without merit.
“I mean, that’s some of the stuff that people don’t really think about,” said Sgt. Matt Webb, who has been on the Charleston Police force for 20 years. During a ride-along, Webb was tracking a case of a man who was stealing vehicles and using them in other crimes. He pulled into an office parking lot where about eight cars were parked around a side-by-side ATV – effectively making it impossible to access the off-road utility vehicle.
“It’s the bigger picture of the drug issues. Guys out stealing somebody’s side-by-side…those people probably work hard every day to try to take care of their families and have things like that, and here he’s trying to support his drug habit and he goes and steals a side-by-side.”
During the 2018 mayoral election, crime and safety related to the drug epidemic became a political theme.
“One of the issues we have in our downtown area and is not just perception -- it’s become reality unfortunately -- is there is a belief that there is a public safety issue in downtown Charleston,” said mayoral candidate J.B. Akers during a fall debate between him and then-candidate Amy Goodwin televised by WCHS.
Akers was publicly critical of the syringe exchange component of the Charleston harm reduction program during his campaign. In the months leading up to the election, the program increasingly became a politically charged, divisive issue.
This fall, the City of Charleston completed a $100 million renovation on the Charleston Civic Center. The Civic Center overlooks the Elk River and abuts the Charleston mall. On other side? The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
“That health department shouldn’t be there,” said outgoing mayor Danny Jones.
The Charleston harm reduction program happened once a week. And as the program grew, that meant up to 400-some patients were coming through in a six-hour period for needle exchange as well as getting vaccinations, testing for diseases and accessing family planning services, among other services. This volume was a big deal for the downtown community.
“Having a program that was outside the city limits or at least within the city limits but in a less trafficked place by regular business people and people doing shopping in the city of Charleston would be an important thing to do as well,” said former city health officer Michael Brumage. Brumage said one of the lessons learned from the program was that they’d likely rethink the location.
Over the last couple of years, complaints of vagrancy and a rise in a criminal transient population have increased -- a change Jones attributes to the harm reduction program and the geography of the state.
“It’s the confluence of the interstates,” he said.
Charleston is at the intersection of two major interstates -- 64 running east to west and 77 running north to south, which Jones said made it easy for people outside of the city to come in and utilize resources meant for residents.
“I know it’s been a long time since I’ve started this profession, but when I first began this profession, I knew of two homeless people in town,” said Sgt. Webb. “And now, I mean, they’re all over the place.”
Sgt. Webb said that addiction and a bad economy go hand-in-hand.
“I’m pretty certain that the addiction aspect of what we’re dealing with has a lot to do with the economy,” he said. “You know, when you’re down on yourself you look for ways to make yourself feel better. I’m far from a doctor, but I’m sure a lot of people who are out here addicted to drugs had some kind of traumatic experience or they’re trying to fix something.”
A few months after the program closed, a Facebook group started, called “Charleston Has Had Enough!”, where members post photos of other people using drugs, stealing packages, panhandling, etc. Now, almost one of every 10 Charleston residents is a member.
None of the ten administrators or moderators returned requests for an interview, but in a Sept. 16 post, one of the founders wrote: “Word is going around that this group is all about shaming junkies. Anyone who believes that is an idiot. No. This is a group about shaming the so-called leadership that got us in the mess, namely the Kanawha County Health Dept. who convinced the city that free needles were a great idea.”
Danny Jones is a member.
“It was a really bad situation for our city. Needles were everywhere. Property crimes went through the roof. And now that it’s over, our property crimes have gone way down,” Jones said.
That’s a slightly misleading assertion. Larceny -- meaning theft of personal property -- has actually fallen considerably from 2014-2017, according to data obtained by West Virginia Public Broadcasting from the Charleston Police Department.
Burglary/breaking and entering spiked in 2016 (the first full year the program was in operation) but then fell to pre-program levels the second full year the program was in operation.
Breaking and entering into a car has risen continuously since 2014. And there was a massive spike in auto crimes in 2016 and no decline during the program’s second year of operation. But data like this does not prove why some crime went up after the harm reduction program opened and some went down. And speculations only seem to divide community.
In an off-the-record conversation, a member of the Charleston Fire Department said the closure of the Charleston program had set the city back 10 years in terms of acceptance of harm reduction. How to move forward is a subject incoming mayor Amy Goodwin addressed in the October debate televised by WCHS.
“Leaders lead,” she said. “Leaders don’t take the blame or cast the blame on someone else. They look at what they’ve done wrong and they say, ‘let’s improve it.’ They look at something that may be a problem in the city and they work with everyone; they bring everyone to the table. They don’t villainize; they don’t marginalize folks.”
At this point, bringing everyone to the table is going to take a lot of work, but it’s not impossible.
“I would be interested in being on some kind of board where they hold discussions about trying to find answers to these questions,” Sgt. Matt Webb said. He said it’s really challenging working with a population struggling with addiction.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “If we go to somebody’s house and they’re having a heart attack, we send them to a doctor and the doctor can hopefully fix their heart. They give them a heart cath, they give them open heart surgery, they’ll do bypass – whatever. When it comes to somebody who is addicted to opioids – a lot of times, I know it’s not true, but they give off the impression that they don’t want help but it’s because the addiction is so great they feel like they don’t want help.”
And if someone does want help, he said, it doesn’t get much easier.
“Are there beds available in rehab places? How are they going to pay for it? Those are sometimes hard answers to get.”
But whether a board is created to discuss these issues like Webb mentioned -- or even if enough people are willing to sit down and really listen to one another to address the still present public health risk of needle borne diseases -- remains to be seen.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.