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Police working to remove homeless encampments

Published: Jun. 29, 2021 at 9:16 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - A number of large homeless encampments in Charleston are causing headaches for businesses and people who live in the surrounding area. The city is now working to remove these encampments and help the people staying in them get permanent housing.

The Charleston Police Department posted notice signs this week at two areas where people have been living for months: under the Virginia Street bridge over the Elk River and behind the Kanawha City AutoZone location.

Laws require a 14-day notice be given if a vagrant has been living on public property for more than 30 days. Officers are able to give a 48-hour notice if someone has lived in an area for seven to 30 days. If a homeless person is on private property, they can be removed immediately.

“We always bring social workers with us to connect these people with social services if they’re still there,” Charleston Police Department Cpl. Travis Bailes said. “If they are not there, whatever belongings are left behind, we do a trash and treasure search with social services. If there is something that could be of value, we will store it. If not, if it’s all trash left behind, the refuse department will haul it off.”

Charleston Police works with the city’s Coordinated Addiction Response Effort (CARE) office and its multiple programs and partner organizations to get people into reliable housing, mental health assistance programs and drug recovery. Bailes said the goal is to prevent homeless people from just moving to another part of the city where they have to be removed from again in the future.

“The ones that don’t want help, there is only so much that we can do,” Bailes said. “If they don’t want to accept our help, than we just ask them to leave. They might turn up somewhere else, or they might not. But, most of the time, they do accept some sort of help to get off the streets.”

“When they are given the assistance that they need, they have become sustainable, productive members of society,” CARE director Emily Hanna said. They work with charity groups across the Kanawha Valley to get people into housing, and are trying to get more people to offer places for rent due to a shortage of landlords.

Officers normally handle one or two of these calls per month, Bailes said. They work with business owners and residents to find problem areas that they might not know about and get people help as fast as possible.

The encampment behind AutoZone started as one vagrant and quickly multiplied to more than half a dozen, employee Andy Young said. The group has created a lot of trash on the ground, wondered through the parking lot scaring customers away, and created a public health risk by leaving used needles across the area.

“It’s not a good look when you pull in and see a big blue tarp back there over the fence,” Young said. “You see all of the trash and needles, and if a customer has to park all the way back by our bay, they see the needles and stuff, that’s not good. I hope they would come and just completely get them out of here.”

Young said the vagrants steal signs off the outside of the store every night to create a floor to the encampment, and even have a firepit and traps to catch animals to eat. Multiple tents can also be seen from the parking lot as people move in and out of the area through a hole in the barbed wire fence.

Charleston residents, including Wendy Swiger, are still skeptical that this approach will work to stop the ongoing homeless problem in the city. She said many vagrants do not want to live in normal housing or shelters, especially during the summer months.

“There is nothing to do with them other than shove them from one place to another place, and then they just go somewhere else and annoy some other group,” Swiger said. “Anywhere you are going to put them, they are going to be an annoyance.”

She is hopeful that drug treatment programs can get these people off the streets and back to a more normal life. CARE is trying to do just that by connecting people with inpatient services, outpatient services, family therapies so they can live in a home.

If you know anyone who needs assistance, you can contact the Charleston Police Department or call the CARE office at 304-348-6440.

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