Downtown Task Force
A New Initiative from the Coordinating Council on Homelessness to address the problems of loitering and panhandling in Morgantown
(Note: Numbers in parentheses indicate sections in the Downtown Morgantown Strategic Plan or the Main Street Morgantown Workplace.)
One of the ongoing issues impacting the quality of life downtown is the presence of persons loitering and panhandling. Sometimes this problem is lumped under the generalization of “homelessness,” but that is not a helpful description when it comes to being able to solve the problem. While homelessness is in part a contributor, there are other factors that need to be addressed if the problem is to be resolved.
Helping those who are homeless find housing is one important approach. Our community is working collaboratively to end homelessness. Most of those who are homeless have little or no income. And the hardest to place are chronically homeless, meaning they have disabilities that prevent them from ever working regularly again. Agencies assist them in qualifying for Social Security Disability and for HUD Section 8 rental assistance vouchers. The additional financial subsidies they need to get into an apartment are provided primarily through grants under HUD’s Emergency Solutions Grant program. Morgantown’s award has been increasing every year, from $100,000 the first year to $236,000 this year, spread through 3 agencies: Bartlett House, the Connecting Link, and Caritas House. These grants are awarded on a competitive basis and are given to those communities that are demonstrating success in getting people housed. Our agencies deserve hearty congratulations on their continued success in getting homeless persons into housing. Other federal and state grants, along with local contributions, provide staff to identify and work with individuals experiencing homelessness.
A) Drop-In Center: Just because someone is no longer homeless does not mean that they are permanently off the streets. They lack the disposable income to do very much during the day other than hang out with their friends. Many persons who are homeless or of very limited financial means need a place to gather. The Friendship Room has recently reopened under the management of Milan Puskar Health Right. It is primarily a day center for persons dealing with mental health issues, but anyone is welcome. A new space has just been found at 304 Willey Street - a beautiful building, accessible for persons with disabilities. With1200 sq. ft., this new peer support center will have an accessible bathroom with shower, a kitchen, a group room, computer and sitting room, and a large living room. The new space will allow for increased mental health and wellness services as well the typical drop in activities. (See 6.8.3)
B) Positive Activities: In addition to a place to gather, many people welcome positive activities in which to be involved, activities that are productive and which integrate them into the rest of the community. It is the intention of the Friendship Room to help catalyse these kinds of activities. There is opportunity here for overlap with some of the goals of the Downtown Strategic Plan to beautify the streetscape, to provide art and cultural activities downtown, and to develop a core of street ambassadors, who, among other tasks, could help keep downtown clean and free of litter. (See: 6.2; MSM Strategy 2, 3)
C) Panhandling: Many persons who are panhandling are not homeless. Housing people will not address this problem, because whether they are housed or not, there are people who are seeking additional income, most often to purchase alcohol or drugs. Increased police presence can help, but alone cannot solve this problem. Panhandling is not illegal. Aggressive panhandling is, but panhandlers usually back off when police are present. And arresting offenders does not seem to be a serious deterrent. They are usually back on the street very soon. Three changes can help address this problem:
i. A Street Ambassadors program of trained volunteers who could move around in teams of 2, intervening in aggressive panhandling, encouraging people to move on where they are disrupting access to a merchant, and also providing hospitality and information for the general public. Staffing would be needed for administration, scheduling, recruitment, and training, but most of the participants could be volunteers. (See 6.8.2; 7.1)
ii. Marketing campaign to encourage citizens to give money to agencies rather than to individuals. One of the greatest deterrents to panhandling is for the public to stop giving money. Panhandling will eventually end if there is no response. ((See MSM Strategy 3)
iii. Increased activity on the streets changes the atmosphere, promoting positive activity and discouraging negative behavior. Currently, there are periods when the panhandlers are sometimes a dominant presence. Greater activity will decrease their impact on people in the area for shopping, dining, and entertainment.
Addressing these issues requires a collaborative and planned program. One of the patterns in the past has been ad hoc, reactive actions which, on their own, have little or no impact. For instance, frustration with persons loitering in the County Courthouse Square and along Wall Street near Milan Puskar Health Right led to the removal of all the benches in those areas. People still gather, especially on Wall Street, but now there are no seating areas for anyone. Isolated actions can be of little use, and even have negative unintended consequences. In order for the public to gather and remain in the downtown, there have to be areas of seating, as called for in the DMSP.
Progress on these issues will require a planned, collaborative approach involving all of the stakeholders in the downtown area. The need for such collaboration is noted several times in the DMSP and the Main Street Morgantown Workplan. (6.2.8; 6.7.6; 6.7.7; 6.8.3; 7.0; MSM Strategies 1, 2, 3, & 4).
Therefore, the Coordinating Council on Homelessness has decided to petition the key stakeholders to join in creating a Downtown Task Force to address the issues of loitering and panhandling as a community. We are formally approaching the City Council, County Commission, Morgantown Police Department, Mon County Sheriff’s Department, Main Street Morgantown, Convention and Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, WVU, neighborhood associations, and downtown residents to jointly create this group. Without a joint effort, we will not see a significant change in these issues. There is no one group who can change things and no one action that can be taken. However, if we commit to working together, we can make a difference.
An open public meeting to initiate the Downtown Task Force will be held on Monday evening, October 17th, 6:30 pm, at the Spruce Street United Methodist Church, across from City Hall. Everyone is welcome.