MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A homeless encampment along Deckers Creek, which has roughly 31 residents, will be closed July 18, but the decision is not sitting well with many residents.
The camp has been a source of controversy in the Greenmont neighborhood, where it’s located, because many people think its residents disturb the peace and are not leading a healthy lifestyle while living there. In response, the City of Morgantown, in conjunction with Monongalia County officials and social service nonprofits, like the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, teamed up to form a task force with the goal of finding permanent and temporary housing solutions for the camp’s residents. So far, more than a dozen people have been relocated, Emily Muzzarelli, the interim city manager, said, and those who are left can take advantage of shelters like Bartlett House. However, that solution isn’t ideal for some camp residents.
“We have people that refuse to leave because they believe that this is their home, and we know that it’s going to be hard for us to leave because everybody needs a place to stay,” Denita Benton said.
Benton said she has been a resident at the camp for about a month, and she wants to move, but is hesitant because she has health problems. In addition, she said she has a strong sense of camaraderie with other camp residents.
This is a sentiment that was shared by many of the people at the camp on Friday afternoon, one day before they have to vacate. Christopher McCoy, who has lived at the camp for about one-and-a-half months, explained why he does not want to move.
“Because of friends, family. It’s a place to live. Because we have nowhere else to go. I really don’t want to move because this is home.”
A woman, who only gave her first name as Tonya and said she had also been at the camp for about a month-and-a-half, echoed McCoy’s sentiment about not wanting to leave.
“Friends and family, friends and family that I’ve made. I came out of here for a reason. Everyone needs support. Everyone needs family.”
Another thing that McCoy said that Tonya related to was the sense that there is nowhere else to go. While many former residents had been provided housing solutions, there are still many people at the camp and throughout the city who need a place, as well, so they should not be forced to move, Tonya said.
However, their point isn’t entirely accurate, because as mentioned earlier, the City’s task force has provided options like Bartlett House.
“We provide a variety of services. We have our emergency triage center downtown, which if people need a place to stay, they’re able to stay there,” Keri DeMasi, chief executive officer and executive director of Bartlett Housing Solutions said. “There’s also a case manager down there that will work with them for finding a housing plan so that they can get out of there quickly into housing—permanent housing placement.”
But, Bartlett House is a place Tonya, McCoy and Benton said they refuse to stay. They cited secondhand accounts of discrimination based on race and gender, as well as generally unpleasant behavior from the staff.
But this is a narrative that DeMasi is strongly pushing back on, stating such unsubstantiated claims can be very detrimental to nonprofits like Bartlett Housing Solutions.
“The only thing that I’ve asked is to give us the opportunity to look into that allegation before they go out there because we don’t recover from things like that, and I take those things very seriously,” DeMasi said. “I don’t take my staff members’ voice as gospel any more than I take a client’s word for gospel. I have a professional responsibility to look into every single complaint, allegation, grievance, whatever word you want to call it, thoroughly, and come to a decision, whether that’s in our favor or against us, and I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Only time will tell if the residents will refuse to leave the camp or not, and if those vehemently opposed to staying at Bartlett House will change their minds. Muzzarelli said one thing is for sure.
“If people refuse to move, that is up to the property owner to take legal action to get individuals off the property, no different than anybody else’s property,” Muzzarelli said.