Time is running out.
For nearly five months, the Charleston City Council has been stuck in the proverbial mud. A bill aimed at curbing needle litter has dominated the council’s last two meetings, with debate totaling more than five-and-a-half hours.
Frustration over the lack of work on other problems facing the community reached a boiling point April 5. Councilwoman Deanna McKinney, representing the city’s West Side, assigned across-the-board blame to council members and the mayor’s office for turtle-paced action on the real issues plaguing Charleston’s most impoverished community.
McKinney pleaded that everyone go see for themselves — the gun violence, dimly or unlit streets, unsanitary conditions, vacant lots, drugs, food insecurity — just to name a few.
“Walk or drive around the West Side, day or night, and tell me what you see,” McKinney said.
McKinney buried her only child, Tymel, 19, after he was shot and killed while sitting on his porch in April 2014. In the last seven years, McKinney has remained an outspoken advocate for curbing gun violence in the city, especially on the West Side. Then, less than 48 hours after her speech, Kelvin “K.J.” Taylor, 18, a beloved Capital High School student, was shot and killed standing on a West Side corner.
Harm reduction is so much more than needle litter, McKinney said, so why has this debate left out the children who continue to be killed by guns, and what will be done to protect them?
“Where is the cry for that type of harm reduction?” she asked.
Gun violence is just one of the many complex, multi-layered issues facing Charleston. Nowhere are these issues more visible than the West Side.
The 1,438 people who live in the West Side flats from the Elk River to Park Avenue have an average life expectancy of 62.3 — the 27th lowest of all 67,148 census tracts in the United States, according to 2010 Census results and subsequent data studies. The 2,183 people who live from Park Avenue to Iowa Street have an average life expectancy of 71.7, still well below the statewide average of 75.3.
The poverty rates in both census tracts — which cut the flats into two halves — are 37% and 39.7%, respectively, more than double the statewide rate of 18%.
“We’re at a very, very critical juncture for this community,” said the Rev. Matthew Watts, a longtime community advocate and pastor at Grace Bible Church. “Things could get much worse, and they could get much worse in a short period of time.”
The window, Watts predicts, is closing. In three months to a year, if city leaders cannot start pointing to real examples of holistic change, the neighborhood will be lost forever. Just think of how things have declined since the 2010 census, he said.
The mayor’s office and the City Council must change its approach to solving its problems, said Toni Young of Community Education Group, a nonprofit organization devoted to fighting HIV, hepatitis C and substance abuse. She said the council must shift its debate to address the “syndemic” with which the city is dealing.
When the world is engulfed by an infectious disease, it’s dubbed a pandemic. When multiple diseases and intertwined issues all play off each other — such as HIV, hepatitis C and substance abuse — it’s called a syndemic. An approach that doesn’t take on all these issues head-on is useless, Young said. Then, the social safety net and community health start to fracture.
“You can’t treat one piece without treating the other piece,” she said. “You can’t invest in one piece and not invest in the other two pieces.”
‘They just put us in prison’
The reality of who drug users are, and what they look like, has been the ignored underlying issue.
Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR, is the volunteer grassroots harm reduction group that’s been under fire for distributing syringes in a West Side church parking lot. Longtime residents have faulted the group for creating unchecked needle litter in the neighborhood, bringing with them crime and people high on drugs.
SOAR volunteers pushed back at recent council meetings, pointing to the lives saved by Narcan and infections prevented by clean needles distributed at health fairs. The group has offered HIV testing and provided a number of outreach services.
SOAR is a white-led organization. Nearly all its volunteers are white. Locals report only seeing white people being served by the organization.
A 2015 study estimates the minority share of the population at 36.2% from Elk River to Park Avenue and 55% from Park Avenue to Iowa Street. Black people make up 15.7% of Charleston’s total population, according to census results.
After state and local government gutted the Triangle District — a Black neighborhood — in the 1970s for the construction of an interstate, the Black people who remained in Charleston were mostly pushed to the West Side, after the same governments broke their promise of an organized relocation.
“We come from a different era,” said the Rev. Marlon Collins, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, which sits in what used to be the Triangle District. When drugs and addiction tore Black communities apart during crack’s reign, Collins said they were treated much differently. Second chances didn’t exist.
“They just put us in prison,” he said.
So forgive Black taxpayers, Collins said, if some take issue when they feel white people are threatening their quality of life. While compassion, recovery and harm reduction have long been deficient for Black Americans, when it’s white people struggling, hot meals, clean needles, water, shelter and support are readily available and often government-funded.
At the April 19 City Council meeting, Joe Solomon, a SOAR co-founder, turned the public speaker’s mic away from council members and faced the West Side residents. He apologized for not being a better neighbor.
“I turned around, in part, because the City Council clearly turned their back on people who use drugs over the last six months,” Solomon said. “But I also turned my back to City Council to directly face members of Charleston’s West Side, who I feel like we could have done a much better job communicating with as SOAR found sanctuary at the Unitarian church.”
Solomon said SOAR’s efforts started, tragically, in the Living AIDS Memorial Garden on the East End, where people “were literally transmitting HIV.” The group tried to find a home on the East End, then in Kanawha City as more people needed services. SOAR worked in a few other church parking lots on the West Side before settling at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston on the corner of Vine Street and Kanawha Boulevard West.
Solomon said the city historically has disinvested in the West Side, creating the conditions existing today, and he understands his group’s presence and approach might not have been welcome.
“I get that for some people. They see harm reduction as another burden, where they’re already facing a lot of burdens on the West Side,” he said.
Martec Washington remembers selling more pills to students at George Washington High School than to Capital kids.
After his father died of lung cancer when he was 13, Washington said, he began selling drugs to support his family. Today, Washington, 32, lives on Randolph Street, blocks from where he grew up on the West Side. In recent years, he’s become one of the most outspoken and productive young activists on the West Side.
George Washington is one of the most affluent public high schools in West Virginia. Those kids don’t fit the mold of how society views drug users, Washington said.
Washington walks the streets of the West Side daily. When the pandemic began, he walked a lot more. There wasn’t much to do, he said. He couldn’t see his older neighbors.
Walking the streets now, Washington saw the change the pandemic brought. Shootings increased, he said. Walking Monday with a reporter, he noticed two fresh bullet holes in the building on the corner just behind his home. One bullet stuck out of the wall.
This doesn’t stop him from living free in the neighborhood he loves and fights for, he said. But he sees a shift in energy from his neighbors.
“I won’t ever feel unsafe because when it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. You’re not going to push me out of my neighborhood,” Washington said. “I feel like my community feels unsafe.”
As COVID-19 began to change the world, a string of all-too-familiar killings began to change the country.
In late February, three white men in Georgia chased down Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man out jogging. They hit him with their truck, then shot and killed Arbery in the middle of the street. Prosecutors on Wednesday indicted the men on federal hate crime charges.
Two weeks later, Louisville Metro Police shot and killed Breonna Taylor, 26, while executing a “no-knock” search warrant. Two months later, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, 46.
Protests raged across the country. Demonstrations took place here, too. But Washington didn’t care for the city and police’s framing of the demonstrations.
“[They] were like, ‘Well, this stuff’s not going on here.’ And I kept thinking to myself, ‘But it has gone on here,’” he said.
He thought of Freda Gilmore, the 27-year-old Black woman punched and kneed in the head by Charleston police during an October 2019 arrest. Officers said they were responding to a report of an altercation in a West Side parking lot. The city paid Gilmore an $80,000 settlement.
Police killings of Black people elsewhere retraumatizes an already-battered community, Washington said. These things do happen here, he said, and every time, it pains the people of the West Side all over again.
Crystal Good, of Charleston, the last of 22 public speakers at the April 5 council meeting, stepped up to the mic and shared her story of recovery for the first time. In a later interview, she said the conversation the council was having for months was nowhere close to the one that needed to be had.
Officials missed their moment to talk about true recovery and harm reduction. She said she spoke out after hearing the “crackheads and junkies” talk by council members, and she wanted to be visible to anyone at home or in the crowd who was looking at recovery. Good said all it took was one person to take her to a meeting and educate her on what recovery really is.
“Maybe I could be that person for somebody else,” she said.
Good said there is no space in Charleston for Black people who want to recover from addiction and heal their collective trauma. Race is considered an “outside issue” in the recovery room to make white people feel they’re in a comfortable space, Good said. But these spaces leave out the important conversations about generational trauma.
Sorry, but praying with “Bubba and his swastika hand tattoo,” Good said, is not a space into which traumatized Black people need to put themselves. But when this is the only option for recovery in a community, either the trauma stays inside you, or you’ve got to grab Bubba’s hand and pray.
“Once I was in recovery, I realized that this is a conversation that didn’t really exist in my world prior to needing it,” Good said.
Good said she can’t believe that even after the July overdose death of a Black city worker on the job — 27-year-old firefighter and medic Jason Cuffee — the city has not created the forum to have this conversation.
“Trauma is everywhere,” Good said, “but I think specifically when you talk about the roads that lead people to addiction, you can start to see similar paths.”
The crisis is at the doorstep.
New York City, home to more than 8 million people, recorded 36 total cases of HIV tied to intravenous drug use in 2020. Kanawha County recorded 35 cases in the same year. The Centers for Disease Control labeled Kanawha’s outbreak the “most concerning in the United States.”
“The concept that this is not going to be a problem is extremely misguided,” said Dr. Judith Feinberg, an infectious disease expert at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Kanawha’s cases “are clearly just the tip of the iceberg,” she said, pointing to half being discovered in hospitals — meaning people are already getting sick.
People can go years without noticing the symptoms of HIV, which, if untreated, destroys the immune system and leads to AIDS. Even the most expensive treatment for HIV doesn’t cure the disease. It’s something people live with until they’re dead.
“As things quiet down from COVID-19, and we do more [HIV] testing, we’re gonna uncover a huge problem,” said Feinberg, who has spent years researching HIV and the opioid crisis.
The city has failed to address any aspect of HIV prevention in the last five months. In three hours of debate on the syringe restriction bill April 19, the word “HIV” was not said once. Feinberg said all council members can do now is implement mass testing citywide.
“There is no way to mitigate the damage this law will do, other than to repeal it,” she said.
Solomon said after criminalizing the most effective way to stop HIV spread and save lives, the city must declare a public health crisis.
About 25% of people in the U.S. who have HIV also have hepatitis C, according to the CDC. This plays back into treating the problem as a syndemic, Feinberg said. That isn’t happening.
“The evidence is very clear that having a needle exchange program is good for the community as a whole, and it’s good for the people that are using drugs,” said Ted Boettner, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute policy group. “It’s disheartening to watch people completely ignore that evidence in order to push a political agenda.”
Boettner said the conversation in Charleston is so political and emotional, an evidence-based approach to solve the HIV crisis — a direct result of the opioid epidemic — is nearly impossible to achieve. One real solution to fix needle litter and curb HIV and overdoses — a supervised injection facility — elicits only emotional reactions from city and county leaders, he said.
While injection sites seem like such a “far-fetched” idea, they already exist, and they already exist in Charleston. “They are just scattered all over the city in bathrooms, alleys, under bridges and road underpasses and in abandoned buildings,” Boettner wrote in April 2018.
Councilman Robert Sheets, the lone no vote on the syringe bill, said as much in a rare speech during a recent meeting. He said if all officials are going to talk about is needle litter, then why aren’t they talking about something as simple as lockable shrapnel containers for discarded needles?
In a 40-page economic analysis, researcher Jill Kriesky laid out the billion-dollar ramifications of inaction on the HIV crisis, finding the 35 HIV cases alone will cost nearly $17 million to treat. And for the 635 cases of chronic hepatitis C tied to intravenous drug use in Kanawha County in 2019, treatment will cost up to $44.5 million. Almost all of these costs fall on hospitals, health centers and taxpayers.
Nearly 4,800 people in Kanawha County use illicit, or opium-related, drugs, according to the study.
“Even if Charleston City Council doesn’t care about human life and human suffering ... the fiscal damage from this is huge,” Feinberg said.
A commonality in this debate is the notion HIV only affects poor people and those who use drugs. The thing about infectious diseases, Feinberg said, is once they start in a subgroup like intravenous drug users, unless it’s contained, the virus will eventually make its way from the impoverished flats to the city’s rich neighborhoods. Besides dirty syringes, HIV spreads through vaginal and anal sex.
“You have someone who injects drugs that has sex with someone, and that person has sex with someone else, and that person has sex with someone else and sooner or later, it shows up in the hills above Charleston,” she said. “The idea that if you don’t inject drugs, you are not at risk for HIV — it’s a complete misunderstanding of how HIV spreads.”
While the problem today might be confined to a stigmatized population, which historically gives public officials cover to dodge accountability, in a short time that won’t be the case.
“The enormity of this problem is so striking to me. In a way, you can see it coming. It’s like looking down the tracks and you see the headlights of that train bearing down on you,” Feinberg said. “It’s coming.”
The path forward
Children have the most to lose.
Thousands of kids on the West Side live with these complex, layered issues, hoping they won’t get swept up by the violence even as they’ve grown numb to it. Lakeisha Barron-Brown, of Charleston, a mental health professional, said the neighborhood isn’t the same one in which kids grew up a few decades ago.
“There may have been crime when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s on the West Side — I must tell you, it was nothing like this,” she said.
Mental health in children must be spotlighted and taken seriously by everyone, she said. It’s on parents to notice and take action if their child’s performance in school starts to slip. It’s on government to provide them a safe neighborhood and a chance to make it out. After tragedies like Taylor’s killing, it’s important children understand why all this is happening.
“We have to begin breaking these incidents down with our children in this community, because if not, the violence will continue and they won’t know how to deal with their mental health,” Barron-Brown said.
She said there must be accountability across the board. Parents and school and state and local government officials must take a holistic approach to make the transformational change children on the West Side need. If the community doesn’t take youth mental health seriously, nothing is going to change.
“If mental health is not addressed, it’s a lose-lose situation,” she said.
Beyond mental health, some families have failed to address trauma and addiction under their own roofs, Washington said. For many of the best friends he’s lost to drugs, Washington said, their families remained silent on the issue even after they were buried.
“It’s a culture issue. In the Black community, there’s so many things that we don’t talk about,” he said. “Stop lying about it. I understand that it hurts your feelings, but you might save somebody else’s life. Or you could have possibly saved your own child’s life if you just actually dealt with it instead of hiding behind it.”
Washington said people hide behind the stigma that it’s only white people with drug problems on the West Side. SOAR has been accused for what they brought to the neighborhood, but locals must consider how entrenched addiction and trauma already are in their community.
“There is definitely a need for harm reduction in this community. Hands down,” he said. “But people need to be open to it and they need to be more honest about it.”
The West Side is also home to thousands of longtime white residents. It’s why Watts and former Charleston NAACP President Rick Martin tried for years to convince the state Legislature to take an aggressive approach to end poverty for all West Virginians. While drastic racial health disparities exist in the state, the living conditions of poor white people statewide are unacceptable, they said.
Watts said he stays hopeful, but with all the federal funding soon to flow into Charleston and Kanawha County, there’s now reason to believe things can change.
“The West Side has suffered from disinvestment for 60, 70, 80 years. Some of these issues cannot be adequately addressed unless there are financial resources to do so,” Watts said. “We have got to demonstrate to this community that they’ve not been forgotten.”
Some in community-based organizations, like Bishop Robert Haley of A More Excellent Way Life Center Church on the West Side, said he isn’t holding his breath that real change will be brought by government. Upstairs in the church, members are constructing their own community center, trying to connect children and adults to the services their elected officials farther down Virginia Street never offered.
“We don’t look for help from any of them because they’ve never helped us in the past,” Haley said. “They put a Band-Aid over here and that’s it. We’re looking for true help.”
What’s also missing is an entire conversation, said Collins. The city has not provided a forum to openly discuss the challenges of trauma, addiction and how they drive the complex issues facing the community.
Hailing from Little Rock, Arkansas, Collins said the problems facing that community were so much more dire than Charleston’s. The gun violence that ended Taylor’s life, just as it began, happened nearly every day back home.
“Oh my God, those people were so complacent for so many years. Then we started burying kids — Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday — literally that frequent,” Collins said.
Charleston cannot let it go that far before the conversation is had, he said.
“You can put a plan in place, but if you haven’t had those honest conversations, it’s not going to work,” Collins said. “There was another mayor when I came here, and it was still the same issue. I was complaining about that same thing.”
On Tuesday outside Shiloh Baptist, while showing a reporter the stairwell where people hide out and shoot up daily, a white man who comes to regularly beg approached Collins, “I love Jesus Christ. You don’t love him,” after Collins denied him. This happens regularly.
When Collins first met the man, he said he gave him $20 for food. He never stopped coming back. The man is not an intravenous drug user and is one of the out-of-state vagrants always derailing these important community conversations.
“He takes the real conversation off of the people that actually need help and the people who want to do the right thing and get help,” Collins said.
Collins remains hopeful, too. This isn’t Little Rock, he said.
Standing on a corner the morning after Taylor’s killing, the sidewalk still stained with his blood, Washington said that without accountability, “there’s going to be several more K.J.’s.”
“I’m so vocal because I know it can change, and I know if it doesn’t, it’s gonna get worse,” said Collins. “And it’s not even summer.”
Whatever terms are used — systemic, generational or chronic poverty — it’s the root of nearly every issue plaguing vulnerable communities, Martin said. It’s why he’s asking the city to invest heavily in all neighborhoods with a 20% poverty rate or higher. In North Charleston, the poverty rate is 40%.
“All of the data is out there. There’s no more need for research. There’s no more need for a study,” Martin said.
There’s a need for honest conversation, but it’s useless if the council and mayor don’t put in the legwork, Martin said. There’s too much on the line. Charleston will receive $38 million from the American Rescue Plan and Kanawha County, $34.5 million.
“We need an action plan with time frames and methodology to measure the success or failure of action plans,” he said. “It’s just time. And if not now, when?”