Amanda Hayes addresses council at the March 14 Buckhannon City Council meeting.

Residents express concerns to city council about homelessness, vagrancy downtown

BUCKHANNON – Several residents urged Buckhannon City Council to help alleviate homelessness in Upshur County – and particularly in downtown Buckhannon – at council’s meeting Tuesday.

Main Street resident Amanda Hayes said she’s lived in downtown Buckhannon for the majority of the 18-and-a-half years she’s called Upshur County home and she’s observed “more and more people without a place to live.” Hayes said she knows the idea of establishing a homeless shelter has been banded about, but she’s not sure that’s the “end-all” solution.

“But we do have a problem with people not having a warm place to go, and they can’t be in my stairwell,” she said. “It’s not safe for people to come out and find someone sleeping there as they’re opening the door trying to go to work. It’s not safe for me to get out of my car late at night and see people hanging around the back of the building.”

“I don’t feel safe in downtown Buckhannon, and this isn’t a big city — I should be able to get out of my car late at night and go about my business,” Hayes added. “I should be able to walk down Main Street without people constantly coming up to me and asking me for money. I understand what it’s like to not have a lot of money, to not have food sometimes, and I understand that these people, some of them have addiction issues, and some of them have other problems.”

Hayes said she knows it isn’t strictly a police issue.

“I know some of these people have been offered help, and they’ve refused it,” Hayes said. “I would just ask the council to consider all avenues and help to make Buckhannon the place that it used to be when I first moved here 18 years ago, because it’s just not been the same the last few years.”

Becki Westfall, owner of Just Cuttin’ Up and Westfall Farms, said an attempted break-in occurred at her business in the early morning hours while she was there. Westfall said some homeless people have become “brazen” and she feels residents’ safety is at risk.

“My friends have been approached with those demanding money, and business owners have vagrants breaking into empty apartments, regurgitating on our properties, individuals passed out in hallways in front of our apartment doors, in multiple buildings throughout the city and on our benches. Drug paraphernalia has been found, including needles,” Westfall said.

“When my friends are afraid to walk Main Street out of fear, it is time to say ‘enough,’” she continued. “Even though we are not Mayberry, we are a community, a village and a team that must work together to find a solution to the issues at hand. Although not a complete solution, I strongly believe that presence and proximity is at the very least a hindrance to those who are part of an escalating problem in our city. We are in desperate need of our officers being seen walking the streets building a rapport visiting businesses speaking to the residents, creating a deterrence just by their mere presence.”

Westfall said she wants council to form a task force and/or develop a plan to tackle homelessness and vagrancy.

“If the police need our assistance, then that is what we need to have done; if they need city ordinances to aid them in their endeavors to curb these behaviors, then city ordinances need to be creative,” she said. “If more cameras need to be installed, then grants need to be written. Our police force is worthy of our support, but our citizens deserve to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our wonderful town without fear. There are many concerned citizens that I represent their voices tonight.”

Mountain CAP, Inc. and its new Family Support Center on Main Street have been working to address homelessness in Upshur County for some time, most recently by attempting to count the number of homeless people residing in the area through a point-in-time count.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory responded to those comments, saying homelessness and vagrancy are complex societal issues often entangled with poverty and addiction. They’re often also multi-faceted, long-standing problems that are impossible to “arrest your way out of,” he said.

“I have heard that the police refuse to do anything about these issues, and that we don’t listen when folks express their concerns to us – and that’s just simply not true,” Gregory said. “Because it’s such a complex issue, we’ve played a role in addressing these problems – certainly the criminality aspect of these problems – but not the totality of the problems. We have a seat at the table of all your various social service agencies, government agencies as well as community organizations.”

He said city officers have initiated investigations and made multiple arrests over the past months and years.

“Police action can be taken when and if a crime occurs,” Gregory said.

The police chief outlined the distinction between criminal actions and noncriminal activity, noting that West Virginia law is not applicable to many of the calls his officers field. Gregory said criminal activities include disorderly conduct (but the subject must first be warned), public intoxication, possession of controlled substances, destruction of property, larceny, indecent exposure, contributing to the delinquency of minors and littering. These charges have been leveled when evidence warranted them, he said.

Additionally, some of those offenses, such as trespassing, are not jailable offenses, so people can’t simply be taken away and thrown in jail.

Buckhannon City Police Chief Matt Gregory responds to concerns about homelessness in downtown Buckhannon.

Gregory said he empathized with the concerns Hayes and Westfall voiced.

“It’s a terrible situation to find in our downtown area, but again, we’re bound by the law,” he said. “If there’s not an existing statute that allows us to charge someone with violation or criminal conduct, we can’t make a charge. Homelessness in and of itself — sleeping on the street or sleeping on a bench — is not illegal.”

“Begging and soliciting is not a crime,” Gregory added. “Being high in and of itself is not a crime; possessing the drug is, but being under the influence of drugs in and of itself is not, unless it becomes something that would cross the boundary into disorderly conduct.”

While officers carry a list of available social services, another obstacle is a general lack of resources necessary to address homelessness in West Virginia.

“The best I can do in that circumstance is offer them help,” the police chief said. “Sometimes they want help. Sometimes they do not want help, and sometimes they can’t get help. What I mean by that is, really what plagues us when it comes to getting [people] help, whether it be addiction, homelessness, or any of these societal, overarching issues, is a general lack of resources for not just our area, but really our whole state.”

The BPD does conduct randomized security checks for businesses that request them, as well as “regular yet randomized” foot and bike patrols.

The police chief supplied a few tips residents can utilize to protect themselves, which include:

  • Target hardening by taking steps to make it more difficult for others to break into their homes, vehicles or businesses. Target hardening might include using locks, securing doors and not storing valuables in vehicles.
  • Carrying personal protection items like pepper spray or stun guns, or alternatively, enrolling in a self-defense course with the BPD.
  • Contacting the police department or the Upshur County E911 Communication Center. If someone witnesses a crime, call the Upshur County Comm Center immediately by dialing 911 if it is an emergency or 304-472-9550 for non-emergencies. Crime tips may also be submitted here on the police department’s website, by calling them at 304-472-5723 or stopping by the Public Safety Complex on Florida Street.

Councilman David McCauley encouraged city officials to consider forming a task force that would include representatives from social service agencies, such as the Upshur Parish House, Salvation Army, the DHHR, as well as therapists, including addiction counselors.

“I heard Matt say I think two or three times in his presentation that they just have one seat at this table,” McCauley said, “and we probably have six, seven or eight other people that need to have seats at the table to really address it.”

Mayor Robbie Skinner emphasized that crime has actually decreased over the past five to seven years, according to the police chief’s annual reports.

“Yes, things change, and none of us as human beings like it, but this is still a very, very safe community,” Skinner said. “It is not ‘little Chicago,’ which has been referenced on social media. This is one of the safest communities in the country.”

“I do not for any reason believe that people need to be terrified of what’s going on,” he added. “They need to be alert. They need to pay attention and to be aware of their surroundings, but that is anywhere.”

The mayor suggested city officials “put our heads together and see what we can come up with.”

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