The longtime city discussion about homelessness has heated up around the encampment some call Diamond Village.

If you missed just one day of news about the homeless encampment on Deckers Creek, you probably lost track of the whole situation. Here’s a catch-up.

It started when the new owners of abandoned property in Lower Greenmont let squatters camp temporarily. While the property owners worked with homeless services in the spring to find housing, that little camp attracted others—22 campers by mid-June. 

Social services groups and city and county leadership agreed in June to find situations for the campers by July 17. But even as Bartlett Housing Solutions and the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (WVCEH) moved people out, more arrived. 

Then, as the deadline loomed, allegations rose that Bartlett House emergency shelter staff had mistreated residents—making it hard to place the remaining campers there. 

On July 18, driven by a Monongalia County Health Department cease and desist order, the campers were moved to adjacent city property. Last week, there were about 30 campers.

People trying to resolve this fall into two—er, camps. OK, two groups. One group says the encampment is unsafe and should be disbanded, and that the longstanding system for getting people into housing, treatment, and counseling should be supported—again, complicated for the moment by the allegations. The other group says don’t chase these people back into the bushes—it’s much easier to establish rapport and get them into treatment or housing when they can be found. That group thinks a facility like the encampment but under roof—known as low-barrier housing—would improve homeless services in Morgantown. Bartlett Housing Solutions CEO Keri DeMasi points out that Bartlett House actually is that—its only requirement is that people can’t do drugs in the facility.

Still so many questions! Here are a few answers.

Where are campers coming from?  Some say surrounding counties, and some say spots around town. Homeless numbers always grow in summer, says Rachael Coen, chief programs officer with the WVCEH—people crashing with relatives, for example, may sleep rough in summer. She isn’t sure there are more unsheltered in Morgantown this summer than usual—it may seem like more because they’ve congregated and attracted attention. Some, she does say, had never been entered into the homeless database. 

Drugs? Everyone agrees that at least 44 overdoses have been treated at the camp—they only disagree about how that should be viewed. Some see it as evidence the camp has to go. Others say overdoses happen—if the user is behind some building, there might not be someone there to administer naloxone, says Milan Puskar Health Right Executive Director Laura Jones.

What about the Ramada Inn solution we heard about last summer? Asked if they would camp at the Ramada Inn—the building isn’t ready internally—the encampment residents said yes, Jones says. But Mayor Ron Dulaney has spoken with WVU and WVU Medicine, which manage the property, and says they are concerned about liability. 

What’s next? A trusted third party needs to look into the Bartlett House allegations. Those allegations are, so far, hearsay; no victim has come forward, some say because victims are afraid of losing housing assistance. It’s not a matter for the inexperienced, DeMasi points out—interviewing people about alleged sexual misconduct, some of whom may have mental health conditions, is delicate. Her board is actively seeking a solution.

A city advisory board that includes members of the homeless community has been suggested. “One thing that has happened with Diamond Village is, we’ve been able to identify some leadership among the folks down there and bring them to the table,” says Jones. “Some of them are eloquent in talking about what they need.”

Time will run out. “We’re expecting to receive a cease and desist order from the Health Department, the same order the private landowner received,” says Dulaney. He is pressing the encampment’s advocates for a solution. “I went down to the camp last week, and at least a handful say they like camping and that’s what they want to do. The city is not in the housing business—it cannot manage that. Does that mean creating a nonprofit, seeking funding? I don’t know. We need the advocates to step forward and lead us out of this.”

posted on July 30, 2020
image courtesy of Tom Bloom

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.