Parkersburg City Council this week approved an ordinance designed to prevent the homeless from camping on public property. Specifically, the ordinance prohibits sleeping, storing personal property or cooking for habitation purposes in city parks, parking lots, streets, sidewalks or under bridges.
The council approved the measure 7-1 with Mayor Tom Joyce as a strong supporter. He said on Talkline Tuesday that public property “isn’t the place for the homeless to be living or staying. We have two shelters that provide not only shelter, but hot meal programs, personal hygiene options and wraparound support services for those people who are homeless to address some of the root causes and underlying issues.”
The action follows increasing complaints from Parkersburg residents and business owners about the homeless population. However, according to the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, several individuals, including Keith Eddy who works with the homeless, spoke out against the ordinance.
“Vulnerable people will be targeted rather than receive the help they so desperately need,” he said. “Even if this was successful, we would merely be pushing these people away from service providers.”
The Parkersburg debate is happening across the country, as communities struggle to deal with what is a growing and seemingly intractable problem. City leaders and citizens typically do not want to be unsympathetic to the homeless, but they are also frustrated by homeless encampments in public spaces.
Research shows that the primary reasons for homelessness are economic. As Vox News reported in an expansive story about homelessness, “Experts broadly agree the problem is getting worse, and researchers say the primary cause is lack of affordable housing, stemming from both a shortage of units, and from rents rising faster than wages.”
Homeless shelters provide a place where the unhoused can sleep, clean up and access social services. However, that is temporary housing, and some individuals avoid shelters because they do not want to follow the rules.
The homeless issue is further complicated by mental illness, substance abuse and a criminal history. The Atlantic reported on a California study of the homeless that found, “Many people enter homelessness from prison or jail—fully 19 percent of respondents. What’s more, 67 percent of those respondents were homeless when they went to jail.”
Back to the Parkersburg ordinance. Mayor Joyce told me he has “overwhelming support” for keeping homeless encampments out of parks and off city property. However, his attention to the issue does not stop there. He is searching for long-term solutions.
“If we do not get more people engaged with these wraparound services to address the underlying issues, the homeless will not get on the path to sobriety, employment, (and) mental health care, we will be feeding and clothing them in perpetuity, and our communities will look like those we see and hear about on the national news every night,” he said.