CHARLESTON — House Minority Leader Doug Skaff told members of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday kids walking to school shouldn’t have to fear because there’s a homeless encampment nearby.
Skaff, D-Kanawha, is the chief sponsor of HB 4753, which would keep those encampments at least 1,000 feet away from schools and day care locations.
Skaff spoke in favor of the bill Thursday morning.
“We should not have to tell our parents to stay in the car because it’s not safe to get out of your car yet to pick up your kids,” Skaff said. “I shouldn’t have to tell my 4-year-old it’s OK to go to school today because you’re not going to see someone who frightens you.”
Skaff said he had a laundry list of examples in downtown Charleston.
The bill, which passed the committee on a voice vote, put some Democrats against their leader.
Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said Skaff has taken some unfair criticism for the bill. He said there’s no bigger supporter of social services like food banks for the hungry but Lovejoy said he couldn’t support Skaff’s bill.
“It’s a little awkward but I can’t support the bill,” Lovejoy said. “I think it’s going in the wrong direction and could further stigmatize a vulnerable population and I think in the end we need to be a little more kind and let Charleston take care of Charleston.”
The homeless population in the state’s capital city has been broadly discussed for years. Most recently a proposal for mini-houses was presented to a city council committee for possible funding from the city’s share of America Rescue Act funding.
According to the bill, “no municipality shall authorize or permit the establishment of homeless encampment at a prohibited location, and a private right of action exists as a public nuisance for enforcement of the provisions of this section.”
Skaff maintained Thursday that children can be protected and the homeless cared for at the same time. He said that’s what his bill sets out to do.
“This isn’t an attack on homeless people. We can have both. We can have both,” Skaff said. “We can take care of our homeless population in West Virginia and we can keep our kids safe but the bottom line is, they just don’t need to be right next to each other.”
West Virginia Council of Churches Executive Director the Rev. Jeff Allen told the committee he believes the bill creates First Amendment issues for churches that care for the homeless.
“Caring for the poor, including providing housing, is a major mandate of the Christian faith and is illuminated throughout the Bible as a common call to care for humanity and a number of congregations and mission projects might be located near a school — this bill does cause us concern,” Allen said.
The committee’s approval vote sends the bill to the full House for consideration but Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito said a public hearing was requested and will be held before any vote on the bill on the floor.