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  • West Virginia Watch

    Arresting homeless people does nothing to address the issue of poverty in West Virginia

    By Eli Baumwell,


    Many of Wheeling, W.Va.'s homeless population have been staying in an encampment on a state-owned parking lot across the street from the Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center. The city exempted the site from its ban on public camping, but with the state planning to close and clean the camp, people will be forced to move again. (Daniel Finsley | Finsley Creative for West Virginia Watch)

    Across West Virginia and the country, government officials are attacking visible poverty. The problem? They’re only attacking the “visible” part.

    Measures criminalizing the homelessness we see in public have soared in recent years, with West Virginia cities like Wheeling and Parkersburg adopting ordinances that punish people with jail time for sleeping outside, and Charleston arresting people for existing in public parks after hours.

    These laws do nothing to address the root causes of poverty, and actually exacerbate the very problems they claim to fix. If you’re destitute, how in the world will fines, court fees, and a criminal charge on your record help you get back on your feet?

    Sometimes known as “camping bans,” these laws have nothing to do with recreational camping. And like Charleston’s park-trespassing ordinance, they don’t apply to people with financial resources.

    Take last year’s Charleston Sternwheel Regatta for example:

    In the lead up to the event, police swept parks and arrested people for trespassing at night. It was an obviously coordinated attempt to make the city more “presentable” ahead of its biggest moneymaking event of the year.

    Before and during Regatta, ACLU-WV staff documented police breaking up encampments and loading people into squad cars for having nowhere else to sleep. And yet, Regatta goers were observed partying well into the early morning hours at Haddad Riverfront Park, drinking alcohol and loudly singing along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” No arrests were made, despite an obvious violation of the city’s park curfew.

    Now the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could decide the future of some of these terrible policies. Gloria Johnson v. Grants Pass, Oregon is one of the most significant cases relating to homelessness in decades.

    It concerns a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that cities like Grants Pass cannot prohibit people from sleeping outside when no alternative shelter is provided. The Supreme Court will decide whether to uphold the ruling, as well as whether “camping bans” constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

    More than 100 amicus briefs have been filed by third parties in the case, including one from the American Civil Liberties Union in support of the rights of homeless people. Coming as a surprise to no one, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey has filed an amicus brief siding with the state over poor people.

    Morrissey claims that “state and local governments should have the power to choose the solutions to homelessness that work best for them,” according to a West Virginia Watch report.

    But that’s just the problem. Local governments aren’t offering solutions to homelessness. West Virginia has been trying to punish the poor out of people for decades, and in addition to violating people’s rights, it just doesn’t work.

    Instead of saddling people with onerous fines and forcing them further into poverty, our leaders should invest in proven solutions like affordable housing, eviction protections, medical care, substance use intervention, and mental health supports.

    The alternative is, in fact, cruel and unusual.


    The post Arresting homeless people does nothing to address the issue of poverty in West Virginia appeared first on West Virginia Watch .

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