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Diamond Village advocate calls council action an ‘ambush’ and a ‘betrayal’

MORGANTOWN — An ambush and a betrayal.

That’s how Liira Raines, who represents Our Future West Virginia and Justice for Diamond Village, described Tuesday’s decision by Morgantown City Council to begin the process of removing the Diamond Village homeless encampment, which has been on city property in lower Greenmont since mid July.

Raines — a vocal and active advocate for the camp — pointed to the Aug. 4 city council meeting, during which the body backed the creation of a special committee that would include representatives from the city’s unhoused population to focus on issues like transitional housing.

Raines said she went on vacation last week feeling like things were heading in a positive direction.

“When we came back this week we were going to meet, sit down and include the voices of those living at Diamond Village and work out a plan that was good for everybody,” she said. “Instead, we came back to what felt very much like an ambush.”

While the special committee will move forward, with its first meeting likely coming next week, Raines said she’s not nearly as hopeful after Tuesday’s decision — which came in the wake of some outside pressure.

Three days after council’s Aug. 4 meeting, the city was put on notice by the Monongalia County Health Department that it was operating a campground without proper permitting. The notice also noted public health issues with the site, including the accumulation of garbage, and gave the city 14 days to get in compliance.

On Tuesday, Interim City Manager Emily Muzzarelli laid out a plan to ultimately remove the encampment by ensuring no new people move in, registering the people currently living there and offering them a housing plan.

Once the current registry of residents has been offered housing, a 14-day notice will be posted and the camp will be cleared. Muzzarelli said the notice won’t be posted until all current residents have been offered housing.

Raines said she likes the idea of getting the camp’s inhabitants into housing and she’s hopeful the city can pull it off.

“But this was still a plan that didn’t include those that it’s supposed to be helping. And while it does the usual job that seems to happen in this county and this city of trying to get the current problem population out of site, it does nothing to address the gaps in service that led us to this point,” Raines said.

Muzzarelli acknowledged those gaps do exist and said the city should focus its efforts on aiding the agencies that are equipped to address them.

But. she said, allowing an encampment to exist on city property alongside a residential neighborhood is an untenable situation and a growing liability for the city.

Muzzarelli said she did spend time speaking with residents of Diamond Village as well as numerous city, county and state agencies about the services they offer, the issues facing the homeless and the specifics of the Diamond Village situation.

“We’ve done our homework. This is not just a knee jerk reaction to a complaint,” Muzzarelli told members of council. “I’ve personally been involved in outreach and research regarding this concern — more than has been done in recent history or by people who will, no doubt, find fault in what I’m saying tonight.”

One of the entities that found fault is the ACLU of West Virginia.

“We remain concerned about the treatment of community members living at the Diamond Village encampment, and we will continue to monitor the city of Morgantown’s and the Monongalia County Health Department’s actions as this situation develops,” ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark said.

Stark said questions remain about how the city intends to provide adequate housing as well as why the city would choose to take such action in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

“We have also filed a formal request under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act for health department records relating to communications with community members regarding the encampment,” she said. “We look forward to a timely response to our request.”

In the meantime, Morgantown Communications Manager Andrew Stacy confirmed that notice would be posted at the encampment on Wednesday explaining that no new individuals may move onto the property. He also said the effort to register the camp’s occupants is underway.

The vote enacting the plan presented by Muzzarelli went 6-1, with Councilor Zack Cruze voting in the minority.