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Speakers urge city to do more for its unhoused population, suggest managed camps

MORGANTOWN — Vickie Ashcraft, a housing advocate for the Fairmont Morgantown Housing Authority, was on Morgantown City Council’s Tuesday agenda to receive a Fair Housing Month Proclamation. 

But by the time she arrived, the proclamation had passed. 

Instead, she joined more than a dozen speakers who came primarily to ask city leadership to step up its efforts to assist the city’s unhoused residents. 

“I came to get this fair housing proclamation late and apparently there was a reason I was to come late,” Ashcraft said, her voice cracking as she turned to face the audience. “I want you to look at what homelessness looks like.” 

Ashcraft said she was “couch surfing” when she took the job with the FMHA.  Most people, she added, are one paycheck or less away from similar circumstances. 

That was a common theme throughout the evening. 

Dani Ludwig, who’s spent the last several years advocating for Morgantown’s unsheltered population, pointed out two individuals died when a condemned house on Wells Street burned last month. 

That fire came days after Bartlett Housing Solutions stopped accepting new intakes at its emergency shelter in Hazel’s House of Hope. 

That shelter, the area’s largest and most established, is currently slated to close no later than June 30, though efforts to keep the facility open are underway. 

Ludwig was among the speakers that said the city should allow the creation of managed camps, at least temporarily. 

“People that I care about are dying all the time,” she said. “I don’t even want to do my job anymore because it’s so [expletive deleted] heartbreaking … It is. It’s so sad. I’ve been doing this for almost six years and I’m still fighting the same fight.” 

Ludwig said managed camps would allow nonprofits to have people at the site(s) around the clock.  

Erin Shelton, a board member with Project Rainbow, seconded the idea. 

She said the community already doesn’t have the beds needed and is moving in the wrong direction. 

“If individuals, organizations and political entities in this city cannot come together and care for those who need our help, the least we can do is allow them to care for themselves and each other in the best way they know how without criminalizing them, running them off, destroying their camp sites and trashing their belongings,” Shelton said, later adding, “Homelessness is a moral and policy failure.” 

Some of the speakers took exception to the way the unhoused are viewed and spoken about by members of the community, particularly online. 

One speaker said of Morgantown’s homeless, “They know they’re loathed.” 

“Homelessness is a crisis for the people who are in it, but most communities, including ours, treat it as a crisis for the people who have to see it, as if that’s the worst thing that could ever happen to us,” Lesley Nash said. “It makes us feel bad and we don’t like that.”