Editorials, Opinion

Give the loiterers somewhere to be

Yesterday, we discussed how downtown Morgantown turns into the Wild West after dark. The rough and tumble nature of the bar patrons and the frequency of violence breaking out make many locals wary of visiting High Street and its offshoots after the sun sets. But there are those who avoid downtown even when the sun is high.

Besides the lack of parking, potential visitors to downtown are put off by the loiterers. This is not a new issue. Pre-pandemic, it was a hot topic — one that local business owners and city council members spent a lot of time discussing. Some of the loiterers are homeless, some are addicts, some are un- or underemployed. Loitering itself isn’t a crime, but local businesses frequently complained that the presence of these people drove off customers.

And as city and law enforcement officials often responded, this is a complex issue without simple solutions.

Many of the loiterers are individuals who receive services from organizations downtown, like Health Right’s Friendship House and the Bartlett House. Health Right offers mental health services, syringe exchanges and social programming; the Bartlett House is a shelter for unhoused individuals. Often, the people who use these services remain nearby, which leaves them wandering or lingering downtown. This is particularly true of those who spend the night at the shelter, as beds are generally available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The problem isn’t that these social services are located downtown; the problem is that there isn’t a place for the people using those services to exist outside of business hours. For example, the Bartlett House is open 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. That means its occupants must vacate the premises first thing in the morning and find someplace to be for the next 12 hours. But there aren’t many places in Morgantown — or anywhere really — where someone can just be without it costing money.

You can’t sit in a coffee shop or a restaurant and order nothing; even if you order something, you eventually have to leave. Someone who is unkempt or “suspicious” looking can’t just wander in and out of stores to pass time. That leaves them hanging out on sidewalks in front of businesses, in parking lots or on public trails.

The city and its residents have been looking forward to the renovated former-Ramada Inn, which is set to become a social services hub, but it’s only part of the answer. Not everyone who loiters downtown is in need of a social or rehabilitation service, and not everyone who does need help is ready to accept it. So if we want to get them off the sidewalks, what we need to do is give them a place to exist during the daylight hours.

What downtown needs is a community center, and there are several large, vacant buildings that would be perfect. Make it free to use. Keep it open throughout the day (say, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Don’t apply pressure to partake in specific programs, and don’t lecture about how they should be living or what they should be doing. Give them access to books and crafts and recreation. Put showers in the bathrooms. Stock it with food and water (local eateries could donate unused food from the night before). Give them a place where they feel safe.

When people have a place to go where they feel safe and where they aren’t pressured to provide something in exchange for existing in the space, we’re less likely to see them lingering on the sidewalks or wandering the streets and trails, which in turn makes downtown a more attractive place for shoppers.

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