Editor’s note: This is part of a nine-piece series on homelessness in Fairmont and Marion County.
FAIRMONT — A call goes into the Fairmont Police Department of a suspicious person wearing a hoodie and carrying a backpack who is believed to be dealing drugs.
Another caller reports that a young white male wearing a hoodie was spotted on the High-Level Bridge looking as though he wanted to jump off.
In a third call, the voice on the other end tells police she believes she saw a young man overdose and needs some help.
In each case, one or each person may be homeless, but regardless, there is no one specific way that a homeless person looks or to determine whether a person is living on the street.
The reality is, each person needs help.
The Fairmont Police Department doesn’t just respond to complaints when it comes to the homeless.
Fairmont Police Chief Steve Shine said the police department plays various roles beyond patrolling city beats.
“Our police department plays a support role with two separate groups addressing the homeless situation,” he said.
In specific cases of homelessness, FPD has staff members who are part of the Multi-Disciplinary Team. For general homeless needs, FPD is part of Community Engagement Services that seeks to find solutions for those living without shelter.
“Both meetings are held at our public safety building,” he said. “With our advisory role, we let the groups know what kinds of problems we are experiencing, complaints that are being received (from homeless, residents, businesses, and community), crimes that are being committed by transient or homeless, trends in the homeless population, and police actions in circumstances.”
FPD also assists the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness with its annual Point-In-Time count, a day set aside to conduct a census of the local homeless population.
The data from the Count is used to help provision funds to local agencies that provide services to improve the lives of those living on the streets.
The homeless in Fairmont and Marion County hail from different demographic groups – veterans, families, those living in transitional housing and children.
According to Zach Brown, Coalition chief executive officer, the total homeless population in Marion County in the 2019 PIT Count was 67.
And even though the Point In Time count strives to be as accurate as possible, some experts say, the actual number of unsheltered adults in Marion County is larger.
“I would agree that numbers from the PIT count may not reflect the homeless count or couch surfing population now, as populations tend to migrate in areas when individuals struggling with homeless have not been able to meet their needs in a community,” said Rochelle Satterfield, community engagement specialist for Marion County with the Morgantown-based Milan Puskar Health Right.
And not every homeless person seen here is jobless. Some just simply cannot afford shelter.
“There is a lack of affordable housing in Fairmont, as HUD vouchers are difficult to fill with local landlords,” Satterfield said.
A roof over one’s head leads to stability, which usually means no need to be on the street or exposed to the elements – criminal or otherwise.
Shine said the police department works to address perceived crimes committed by the homeless as reported by businesses and visitors.
And that guy with hoodie cannot be arrested simply because he looks different.
Probable cause still applies to the homeless. No arrests can be made unless there is evidence to show a crime was committed.
Shine said he often has to remind people “that vagrancy laws based on the appearance of someone (dirty, unkempt, carrying bags, etc.) in a public place is not an arrestable offense and taking criminal action against someone because another person doesn’t like how they look, in a place where they don’t think they belong, is unconstitutional without a specific criminal act being perpetrated,” Shine said.
Shine’s involvement in the two monthly committees gives him insight into the big picture of homelessness in Fairmont. He reminds everyone that the police department makes sure the laws are being followed.
“There are a lot of good people trying to do good things in our community with [and] for the homeless,” Shine said. “That does not negate the fact that we will hold transients accountable for illegal actions they commit and that we recognize that there is a segment of population that detracts from character and attraction of the city.”
Shine shared his thoughts on the nature of homelessness.
During his law enforcement career, Shine has seen a connection between mental health and homelessness.
“In my opinion, the homeless population is more of a mental health issue than a housing issue,” he said. “There is a very good system in place where mental health services and housing resources are working to get people situated. Not everyone wants to take advantage of that.”
Lt. Samuel A. Murray of the Fairmont Police Department said the majority of the department’s calls for service involving the homeless are simply to check on a person’s welfare, calls made by concerned citizens.
He said callers witness bizarre behaviors, typically due to mental illness or drug use, and want the police to investigate.
“Loitering and trespassing would be the next most frequent call, followed by larcenies (i.e. shoplifting) up to breaking and entering,” he said.
He didn’t have statistics available as to how many crimes are committed by the homeless. He said the downtown area attracts the homeless because that is where the services they need are also.
“As far as the overall percentage of crime committed by the homeless, that would be too labor intensive to calculate, but there definitely is an uptick in crime with the increase in homelessness,” Shine said. “The downtown area hosts the greatest numbers of these individuals inside city limits. They tend to concentrate where available services are located and stay within walking distance.”
Shine said it is misguided to believe that every person living on the street wants to get back to being self-sufficient and sheltered.
“I believe that the biggest misconception that the public holds regarding homelessness is that these people are seeking a way out of their situation,” he said. “In many cases they refuse treatment, work, and housing preferring their current lifestyle over the condition of sobriety or mental health treatment.”