Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin called on West Virginia lawmakers to convene a special session to address challenges with mental health, substance use disorder and homelessness facing municipalities in a letter sent this week.
The seven-page letter details efforts the city has undertaken to bolster its services for people struggling with these issues, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. It also lists seven legislative actions Goodwin said will help those dealing with these issues, as well as those providing support services.
Goodwin said the goal of the letter and any special session would be to develop a solid, applicable and proactive plan to address these problems, some for potentially the first time. Charleston, she said, started this with the creation of the CARE (Coordinated Addiction Response Effort) office.
“Creating that team was not done for any reason other than, when we got here, we saw the huge, gaping holes [in care] immediately upon arrival. They weren’t hiding,” Goodwin said. “We discussed it, and what we were missing was a system focused on the systems in place [that] we don’t have figured out. We needed more planning and focused, specifically people focused, solutions.”
Goodwin said she is not blaming any agency or group for the challenges but that she wants them and others to recognize the weaknesses in the city’s support service infrastructure.
Rarely, she said, are any measures proactive.
“Our goal is coming up with a robust, proactive plan. I have not seen anything, at any level really, that has not been just reactionary,” Goodwin said. “All we’re trying to do is pivot to being proactive.
“Are there reactive steps that we have to take along the way? Well, of course. But there has to be more emphasis on a proactive plan, and more coordination and more communication. What’s the downside of any of these things?”
While the letter is from Goodwin and the city of Charleston, the issues detailed within apply statewide, and even nationwide, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said.
“There are issues every community in the nation is dealing with, so what Mayor Goodwin is seeking — to have legislation introduced — that’s understandable,” Williams said. “We need the support of the Legislature in helping us identify ways of addressing issues. Collaboration, between the locality to the state to our federal representatives. We need that. Municipalities cannot do it alone.”
Traci Strickland, head of the nonprofit Kanawha Valley Collective, said there are plenty of people in Charleston and beyond doing the “boots on the ground” work to connect people with services.
The systems they work within, though, are broken.
“That’s one of the phrases we hear a lot, whatever system it is, but it is true. There has been a slow crack that has continued in the mental health system for a number of decades. It grew with substance use disorder. The face of the people we serve now is different,” Strickland said. “The needs and the experiences of people we serve today are different, greater. We have a lot of willing boots on the ground to do the work, but we need systematic help.”
Matthew Sutton, Goodwin’s chief of staff, said these issues cause frustration across the community. Police are tired of repeatedly picking up the same people for mostly petty offenses. Jails, often overcrowded and under-resourced, serve as temporary shelters for people picked up, even as they aren’t charged with crimes. Service workers for those in need are operating with limited resources and limited manpower. Hospital workers, already overwhelmed by COVID-19, have few options to help people with behavioral health challenges.
Goodwin said those who need help often face hurdles in trying to access it, if help even exists at all.
Five years ago, the city would see 1,000 people a year placed in treatment facilities through mental hygiene petitions. Today, Sutton said, there are only 100. This is despite more people in the city needing those services, Goodwin said.
“That is not a request you make lightly, but sometimes people really, really do need it,” Sutton said. “When we do get [mental hygiene petitions] approved, if they ever are, then it’s the process of finding an appropriate place for the person to go for help. That’s a challenge on its own. We don’t have enough resources or places to send people who need the help.”
Between September 2020 and September 2021, 144 people in Charleston were arrested more than five times, mostly for petty crimes, such as vandalism, public intoxication and loitering, Sutton said.
“It’s the same people over and over again, but we don’t have anywhere to put them to help. The officers, they’re required by law to do their job — arrest people breaking the law — but it doesn’t work,” Sutton said. “They’re doing it over and over again.”
While the gaps in coverage have widened during the pandemic, the underlying problems aren’t new. It’s a decades-old issue, Sutton said.
“What we’re seeing unfold in Charleston today fundamentally started before any of us in this room were born. It’s been decades and decades and decades of hiding the problem. Forty years of pushing it in the shadows,” Sutton said. “There was no plan, we just created all these rules that said, as long as [the problems] are not in our face, we’re fine with it. Just go someplace else.”
Today, legislation introduced locally and at the state level aimed at addressing some of these issues is instead repeating the same mistakes.
Goodwin said these initiatives, including a bill introduced to the Charleston City Council last month that would criminalize and fine anyone in the city for sleeping or staying long-term on city property, lack direction and intent. What happens, she asked, to the person arrested or fined?
“It’s the same as it is today: They’re back in the same place within a few days, without any more help or support,” Goodwin said.
Strickland, who worked in behavioral health services before joining the Kanawha Valley Collective, said the region was hit hard by the addiction epidemic, which, in part, led to more of this kind of legislation.
Challenges in addressing mental health combined with challenges in addressing drug use. Both fueled homelessness. And as that unfolded, funding for social welfare and support systems continued to shrink.
“Now, we have the greatest problem, I can say of our lifetime, with the pandemic, on top of the most complex problem of our lifetime, which is mental health, substance abuse and homelessness,” Sutton said. “We’re trying to confront all of that, but there are less resources and more strained resources than have ever existed. And yet, here we sit today. In a way, we’re essentially begging for help for and from our state.”
Goodwin said the city, and others, have been begging the state for help for years. Now, they want to see a plan implemented based on the suggestions in her letter, which include incentivizing behavioral health workers to stay in West Virginia, implementing mental health courts, establishing a statewide council on behavioral health, reducing barriers to mental health care, expanding services like Quick-Response Teams, and creating a crisis hotline for those who need help.
These are programs and support systems that cannot be run or managed solely at a city level, Goodwin said.
“This is what the state can do, a small part of what the state can do, to help our efforts,” Goodwin said. “We need it, and we need people to understand that Charleston, any municipality, any town, can’t do this work alone. When things are as fractured as they are, as deep as they are, we need to reassess our approach. This is what we want.”
Sutton said he views the letter as an opportunity to impress on lawmakers the weight pressing down on municipalities and local service providers. It’s not often, he said, that city personnel are given a seat at the table, even while discussions center on municipal actions and responsibilities.
Goodwin said she’s realistic about lawmakers acting on all seven of her suggestions, or even getting a special session called. But anything that can be done would be beneficial to the city and the state.
“Right now, we’re not moving. We’re not even at a standstill; we’re going backward. If we could have implemented any one of these seven [initiatives], any two or three — not all of them — but any, we would be holding ground,” Goodwin said. “We’re behind. We’re so far back right now and, in trying to get this point across to people, it’s hard to explain to people.
“And we can’t forget, at the center of all of this, are people. People who are suffering and who need our help and who we need to help.”
Copies of Goodwin’s letter were sent to Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.
Goodwin said Ann Urling, deputy chief of staff for Justice, confirmed that the letter was received and sent to the governor’s desk.