Community, Government, Latest News, Morgantown Council

Residents of homeless camp say they’ll stay on city property until needs are met

MORGANTOWN — About 20 residents of a  homeless encampment known as Diamond Village have set up on an adjoining piece of city of Morgantown  property and plan to occupy the site until the city meets their demands.

A press release issued Saturday afternoon by Justice for Diamond Village states:

“We the residents of Diamond Village demand that the City of Morgantown designate a piece of public property which we can stay on and continue our community without judgement or subjection, until a permanent solution can be found. This solution must come from a working group which includes representation and voting power from people living in Diamond Village.”

Furthermore, the release states that several residents have said they will not utilize shelter options provided by Bartlett House, citing issues including sexual harassment from staff.

Bartlett Housing Solutions Director and CEO Keri DeMasi said she was never contacted about the allegations and only learned of them through social media posts.

“I’m sickened by these allegations. The people who are advocating for these folks never once reached out to me about the concerns, which are extremely serious in nature if truthful,” DeMasi said, explaining that she eventually made contact after seeing the  posts online.
“I haven’t been provided a name or names of staff they are making these allegations about. They are deflated, heartbroken and burnt out. I’m just so saddened by all of this. If these horrible things occurred, why did not one person report it to anyone — us, law enforcement, anyone — until now?”

Located in the Greenmont neighborhood off Pennsylvania Avenue, the camp began in  February on private property with the property owner’s permission. Since then, a task force was formed to address the situation, which resulted in the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness getting 14 people into housing and under case managers — essentially filling all available WVCEH program spots.

Simultaneously,  representatives from Mylan Puskar Health Right , Our Future West Virginia and the West Virginia Chapter of the ACLU began working with and advocating for residents of the camp.

WVCEH Chief Executive Officer Zach Brown issued the following statement in response to Saturday’s press release, calling the situation “an unfortunate one” and explaining his organization marshaled the lion’s share of its resources to assist people living in Diamond Village.

“As quickly as we can house someone, local groups in the area have made a move to usher people into the encampment with total disregard for the system in place to house them. This is, effectively, leaving the faucet on full blast as the drain is open. It’s unhelpful, counterproductive and puts people’s lives at risk,” Brown said. “If the local organizations persist in placing people in this, or any other encampment, we will be forced as an organization to take direct legal action against them … in order to save lives and provide stable housing.”

Saturday marked the deadline set by the property owner for the land to be vacated. Residents and supporters spent much of the day in the heat moving the camp onto city property.      

The press release issued by the group points to a recent change in city policy regarding homeless encampments, explaining that the city must give 14 days written notice before it can remove a camp from public property.

Liira Raines, with Our Future West Virginia and Justice for Diamond Village, said the residents now occupying city property didn’t have anyplace else to go.

“They made the decision to make a stand and ask the city of Morgantown to come up with a solution instead of trying to force them back into the brush and act like they don’t exist,” Raines said.

Raines went on to say that for all the groups, committees and task forces organized to assist the homeless, none ever bother to include unsheltered people.

“One of the major gaps that’s been expressed time and again and the reason so many solutions to the problems unsheltered people people have getting a leg up in Morgantown, the reason those solutions fail is they never include the people they’re trying to help,” Raines said.

“I’ve been to so many task force and coalition and working group meetings in town, and with the exception of the one we convened with our partners and leaders from Diamond Village up at Health Right, I’ve never seen an unsheltered person in one of those rooms.”

Information shared by Justice for Diamond Village  points out that moving the camp during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis goes against CDC guidelines, which state “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”

Leah Martin, a resident of the camp, said Diamond Village offered a sense of community.

“This place is important because especially because with the recent COVID pandemic there are a lot more people on the streets,” she said. “This offers a community setting where people are taken care of, including those who are new to homelessness. Without this place a lot of us would have no place to sleep but the streets. Because of this place I am going into recovery tomorrow.”

Justice for Diamond Village is on Facebook and has set up a GoFundMe for support and bail money.

The Dominion Post reached out to city officials but didn’t receive a response in time for this report.

TWEET @BenConley_DP