Discussions about homelessness still front and center

The subject of homelessness and how best to handle it has been front and center in local discussions for well over a year now, but the conversation has taken a more urgent tone since winter. First, it was the struggle to open a warming shelter during the coldest months. Then it was the collapse of Bartlett House. And now, once again, the subject is dominating headlines and public discourse.

Under new management

As of the end of June, Catholic Charities of West Virginia is on track to take over the triage shelter at Hazel’s House of Hope — if it can get enough funding. And the organization is asking the Monongalia County Commission and the City of Morgantown to front $300,000 to $350,000 of that funding for the first year. (The estimated cost to run the shelter for a year is $450,000 to $500,000; Catholic Charities has already secured the $167,000 grant from the WV Coalition to End Homelessness that Bartlett had lost.) The understanding is that Catholic Charities would work on other sources of income, such as grants and foundation partnerships, so the county’s and city’s contributions would lessen over the following two years.

It’s a large sum, but it’s an investment that must be made for the good of our community. We can understand if some feel like it’s throwing good money after bad. However, with the change in management, it should be less like throwing tax dollars into a blackhole, where the money disappears forever with nothing to show for it. We imagine it more like filling in a large hole: It takes a lot of dirt to bring everything back to level, but once you do, you have solid ground upon which to build.

If not here, then where?

City Councilor Louise “Weez” Michael has proposed the City of Morgantown expand the municipal code that outlaws sleeping or camping in public parks or recreation facilities to also include residential properties, city streets, alleys and sidewalks.

We understand the impulse behind the proposed change, and we respect that downtown business owners and their customers are uncomfortable with people sleeping on the sidewalks or in doorways. Their concerns are valid.

We know that Morgantown’s shelters do not have enough beds to accommodate all of the area’s unhoused people. It was a problem we ran into over the winter, when need far outpaced availability.

We also know that criminalizing sleeping outdoors is unlikely to make the situation better. The people targeted by the change in code are the same people who are least likely to be able to pay any subsequent fines. If they end up in jail instead, we — as taxpayers — will be paying for them to be housed in jail. When they come out, they will have a harder time finding employment or housing because of their criminal record, therefore making it more difficult to escape the cycle of homelessness.

If the city doesn’t want people sleeping on public property, then it must have a designated place for them to go, other than the shelter. As we’ve established, there isn’t enough space for everyone, and there are, admittedly, some people who will refuse to go to the shelter.

That is why we once again encourage the city to look into establishing a managed encampment within walking distance of downtown. It would allow the city to humanely enforce any rules regarding sleeping on public property by offering a viable alternative location for people to go. In turn, that should minimize any fines or jail time that could jeopardize a person’s ability to find stable work and housing.

If council insists on pursuing Michael’s proposed change to city code, then this is the best compromise.