Westover searches for long-term solution to tent cities in area

WESTOVER — Westover police are looking for a long-term solution to tent cities in the city, hoping to solve the problem and still give those living there a place to stay.

Westover Police Chief Richard Panico mentioned the tent cities becoming a problem during  city council meetings this month.

He said he and Mayor David Johnson were deciding the best way to handle the situation.

Panico said the tent city near Monongahela River was located on the railroad right-of-way, and the company  asked Westover police to help take care of the problem.

Panico told The Dominion Post they expect to see more tents as the weather changes so they hope to put an end to them soon.

“The question is what do we do with them? That has yet to be determined, but we do have a plan to go down there, clean it out, salvage anything we think is a part of a criminal act and see if the owner is interested or if we can track it down,” he said.

Panico said the number of occupants in the tent city — and in three smaller camps they are aware of in different locations — varied based on the times he had gone to the dwellings, but he did find evidence of criminal activity.

“The ultimate goal of the police department is to maintain a certain quality of life within that police officer’s jurisdiction,” he said. “So, you talk, you communicate with people and try to find out their desires and needs. That’s one way.

“The other way is if you have active events, like crimes that occur, you try to put them together and try to find the root cause analysis. Where is this coming from and why? And it came back, in this case, to this tent city down there.”

Panico said many of the occupants are not from the area, but they do not have the support system to leave.

“Of course, going into it deeper, we found out that most of those people don’t come from Morgantown,” he said. “They came here to get a job, or the drug culture — the availability of it here made it something to look at. They don’t have any support system. There’s no way to get back home. They found a way here, but they can’t get out of here.

“Of course, they can’t get a job, so then they turn to crime to support what they are doing and, likes attract. Pretty soon the word gets around that ‘hey, I have a neat place over here. You can be part of this.’ It turns into a little Woodstock-type of deal.”

Panico said there were hazardous materials involved, including needles from drug use.

“We’ve already given like three bikes away that we don’t know where they came from, but they are too nice to be down there,” he said. “We actually found a bike factory. They had a place set up changing tires. They had a little bench set up with tools and stuff.

He said there are shoplifters living there — mostly the females. The men go more for breaking and entering, especially of vehicles.

“Of course, this all revolves around meth. They are all hooked on meth. You can find evidence of its use when you catch them,” he said.

Panico said they’ve confirmed four tent cities in the area and now they have to figure out what to do with them.

“Is it a county problem? Is it a state problem? Do I dump it off on Bartlett House? Is there someone I can look at by code, law or reputation or funding and say ‘you are responsible for these people’?”

Panico said two of the people  said they’d been banned from the Bartlett House, so they can’t go back there.

“That’s the rub right there,” he said. “I can go down and stir up this hornets nest, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with the hornets. So, that’s where I am at.”

Keri DeMasi, executive director of the Bartlett House, said she was surprised to hear some occupants said they had been asked to leave the homeless  shelter.

She said the Bartlett House had shifted  services to a housing-first model instead of a housing-readiness model, so the shelter had become a no-barrier shelter.

“Our downtown location, which is our triage shelter, is kind of like the entry point for the system in many cases, or where people first present for services, but it’s a no-barriers shelter,” she said. “There isn’t any requirement for services.

“In the past, when we were doing housing-readiness work, where we would work with them, make them get a job, save your money, be sober and then get a house. Now, we do housing-first work, where we say let’s get them into housing first and then work with them on all the things they need to do to sustain this housing.”

DeMasi said the only reasons an occupant could be asked to leave would involve drug use on the property or violence.

DeMasi said she could only think of two instances in the last year when someone had been asked to leave for not  abiding by the regulations of the shelter.

She said even those residents who are addicted and buying drugs typically don’t bring it into the shelter.

DeMasi said she would like to meet with Panico to see how the people in the tent cities can be helped.

“Research has found that if you are struggling with substance abuse, you have a higher probability of staying sober and no longer using substances if you are housed than if you are, while you are under a bridge,” she said. “There are a lot of resources out there to help people.”

Panico said he planned to contact Demasi and others to see what could be done for the occupants of the tent cities.

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