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Wheeling Police, Homelessness Advocates Deal with Unintended Consequences of Camp Disbandments

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Corey Knollinger
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Nic Cochran leads Wheeling homelessness advocates in prayer at a soon to be disbanded camp.

In early October, the City of Wheeling disbanded four encampments occupied by residents currently experiencing homelessness. The decision to disband camps during a pandemic was controversial, and advocates warned there could also be unintended consequences.

At an encampment for those without housing, a group of homelessness advocates held a prayer service on what would be the final day the camp existed on that spot.

Two weeks prior, signs went up there and in three other locations, warning that all people living at the encampments would have to move.

Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertzfeger says increased crime led the city to decide to disband these specific encampments.

“Every two weeks we look at data related to criminal activity, and everything was leading to these areas of Big Wheeling Creek, downtown, and Center Wheeling were out of control. And so we needed to take a look,” Schwertzfeger said.

“One of the arguments over the course of this thing is ‘why don’t you arrest the people that are responsible?’ And the response I have is that we did, more than once, but the court system is as such that folks get out on bond, or they get released, whatever the case may be, and we’re right back where we started.”

According to a police department memo dated Aug. 28, there were 118 calls of service to these four encampments between March and June of this year.

The Implications of Broken Trust

Nic Cochran, an advocate for those experiencing homelessness, feels he and other advocates are partially to blame for the uptick in calls. He says they advised people without housing to call the police for assistance when they couldn’t get a hold of any other advocates.

“We have taught people that it’s okay for them to reach out to the police department if there’s a problem that they cannot handle among themselves. The same way anybody in a home would do so,” Cochran said.

“If there’s something going on that’s illegal, we have worked very, very, very hard to remind people that it’s the police’s job to protect and serve every member of this community. And because of all of the calls that were made to the police department, that is being used as an excuse to dismantle all of the homeless encampments.”

Advocates are worried about the implications of broken trust.

Communities have now been displaced and Cochran says he doesn’t know where many people have gone.

“I don’t know where they are. People aren’t telling me where they are, people aren’t communicating with Project Hope [that] provides medical services. They’re not telling them where they are. And that’s been really really hard,”

Going Forward

While disbandments may be a short-term solution to remedy complaints of crime, Cocrhan says long-term solutions have yet to be offered.

“The biggest problem people experiencing homelessness are facing right now is the fact that they are homeless. And the way that we solve that problem is by providing housing to people. I mean if you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the basic needs for people are the needs for survival. And if those needs aren’t being satisfied, nothing else can begin to happen,” Cochran said.

The Wheeling Intelligencer recently published an editorial from Cochran. In it, he detailed some of the root causes that can lead to homelessness. Cochran explained that developmental disabilities and mental health disorders — many times those rooted in childhood trauma — are often at the core of the issue. There, too, he called for “lasting solutions.” He wrote, “The person who is homeless is not a failure, but is someone who has been failed.”

As of now the city has no plans to disband any other homelessness encampments. Some discussions are ongoing, however, exploring the idea of hiring someone to act as a liaison between the city, homelessness advocates, and those experiencing homele[ssness.

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