Human rights proclamation results in criticism of Morgantown leaders

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There continues to be disagreement in Morgantown over homelessness and warming shelters.

A proclamation for Human Rights Day at Morgantown City Council Tuesday night was met with calls to improve treatment of the local homeless community and add more housing to the proposed Richwood Avenue redevelopment project.

Lindsey Jacobs

Lesley Nash identified herself as an attorney with a background in international human rights law and has spoken in previous public meetings as a staff attorney for Mountain State Justice. She pointed to the arrangement reached for a low-barrier temporary shelter during the winter months. Plans for a full-time winter shelter were scaled back to a temperature-dependent operation as efforts to find a location and proper staffing hit roadblocks.

“If you’re unhoused, how are you supposed to know it’s only going to be 42 degrees tonight, so no bed for me, versus it’s 39, so hopefully, if I can get up to the shelter, they’ll have a bed open for me?” Nash asked council members. “These are not policies that live up to the values and ideals of the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).”

Another resident, Lindsey Jacobs, said in her professional capacity as advocacy and access program director for Mountain State Justice the that she has heard complaints about the way homeless people are treated in the city of Morgantown.

“We’ve received reports of the city not following its own policies as it relates to encampment evictions and ticketing folks that have nowhere else to go because the shelter is full—those things are not in line with human rights,” Jacobs said.

Lesley Nash

Having a background in working with human rights issues in places like Ethiopia and Thailand, Nash said that as a community, we have the capacity and tools to make a difference.

“We see ourselves falling down a little bit and not really living up to the promise of what we could be in terms of really progressive, human, and welcoming policies toward members of our community who are unhoused or facing difficulties,” Nash said.

Jacobs reserved a portion of her comment to remind council members and the city administration that they have clear responsibilities and could be held accountable.

“I think it’s opening the city up to liability. I think you all know that, legal liability,” Jacobs said. ” But it’s also inhumane, and it’s out-of-line with every recognizable international opinion, guidance, and health guidance on how to deal with the problem of homelessness.”

On the Richwood Avenue redevelopment project, one resident asked the city to require the developer to submit an amended plan that would add more housing. Housing that would reflect public comment received during the work compiled during Morgantown 2033, the comprehensive ten-year plan for development in the city.

Jacobs also asked the city to expand the plan to include more housing, like other cities experiencing substantial growth across the country. She wants councilors to get more options and add more creativity to the Richwood Avenue redevelopment project.

“We’ve been given this binary choice; it’s either take what’s been given to us or we don’t get anything at all,” Jacobs said. “That lacks so much imagination and so much creativity, and I think it’s a shame they would allow themselves to be backed up into a corner.”

Council approved the first reading to change zoning on Richwood Avenue from R-1 and R-2 to B-1 passed by a vote of 6 to 1. Seventh Ward representative Brian Butcher was the dissenting vote.

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