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DeMasi: Inspections part of an ongoing attack against Bartlett House

MORGANTOWN — Keri DeMasi has been the executive director of Bartlett Housing Solutions since 2004.

In that time, the agency tasked with getting the unsheltered into housing has never been inspected by Morgantown Code Enforcement and was once visited by state fire marshals — at DeMasi’s request — when she took over as director.

In the last two weeks the agency’s University Avenue shelter has been visited by both, all a part of what DeMasi believes is an effort spearheaded by advocates of the Diamond Village homeless encampment.

“I don’t know how else to say it except that right now I feel like we’re really being attacked. I don’t claim that we’re perfect. No organization could say that, but we try really hard to elicit positive change for people experiencing homelessness,” DeMasi said. “We’ve done that for more than 30 years.”

The issues date back to at least July 18, the day the encampment moved from private property in lower Greenmont to a piece of adjacent city land. That day, a group calling itself Justice for Diamond Village issued a press release that included a number of allegations about Bartlett House — including sexual harassment by staff members — in explaining why residents of the encampment didn’t want to utilize the services offered by the agency.

DeMasi said she was never approached and has never been provided any details to support any of the allegations despite numerous requests. Even so, the agency recently instituted new policies including a third-party hotline and independent investigations aimed at making clients feel more secure about sharing potential abuse or discrimination claims.

The Justice for Diamond Village press release prompted West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness  CEO Zach Brown to issue a statement threatening legal action against groups working to place or keep people in homeless encampments

What makes the complaint-driven inspections even more frustrating, DeMasi said, is that the city seems to have taken a completely hands off approach to dealing with the encampment.

Morgantown Communications Director Andrew Stacy said code enforcement has not been to the city-owned site. When asked previously if the police were checking on the encampment, he said no city employees are regularly going into the area.

It’s been publicly stated by groups working with the encampment that there have been dozens of overdoses. The Monongalia County Health Department has given the city notice that the camp is in violation of state code as a non-permitted campground, citing, among other things,  a large accumulation of garbage in a letter stating the city had until Aug. 21 to get the site into compliance.

In the meantime, DeMasi said Bartlett House facilities are as empty as she’s seen them in her time as director. 

“Here’s a place where the police can’t or don’t come, where code enforcement can’t come to where people are able to use drugs and that’s a lot of what the appeal is, in my opinion, DeMasi said, adding that it’s the city’s prerogative to set up a properly sanctioned encampment if it wishes.

“But you have to ensure people are abiding by the laws of society. You can’t turn a blind eye. You can’t tell law enforcement or code enforcement or public health officials that they can’t enforce the laws everybody else has to follow,” she said. “That’s not only a disservice to the people in the community, but also the people in Diamond Village. That’s not a sustainable or reasonable expectation if what you really want is for these folks to be successful in life. Are we not setting them up for failure?”

She said people can enter the Bartlett House shelter in active addiction and under the influence, but drugs and weapons cannot be brought into the facility.

“I don’t fault the clients who are down there. I truly don’t,” DeMasi said. “I just get very frustrated with any type of manipulation of vulnerable people.”

As for the inspections, Stacy said Bartlett House’s classification as an adult day care facility puts it under the fire marshal’s jurisdiction, but the city can inspect based on complaints. He said  some minor repairs were advised.

“Certainly nothing serious,” DeMasi said. “They certainly didn’t deem it uninhabitable, which is what they were told they would find when they came in. They told us that. They told us they didn’t see anything that they expected to see based on what they were told.”