The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising against breaking up “tent cities” or homeless communities stationed in a particular area during the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that dispersing people in these camps could spur outbreaks in the general population and make these individuals harder to track.
Yet that’s exactly what officials are trying to do to a community called “Diamond Village,” in Morgantown. The homeless camp already has been moved once — and doesn’t want to be moved again.
In some ways, the response in Morgantown is to be expected. The camp was on private property, where people were given permission to stay by the owner, until it was moved. It’s now occupying property that, while vacant and unused, belongs to the city of Morgantown. Homeless camps can make others uncomfortable and are usually viewed as an eyesore and example of community decay. And such encampments often are violating some type of city ordinance by making semi-permanent living spaces in a given community.
That’s nothing new. Tent cities cropped up across the country after the 2008 economic free fall. People who were living in suburban houses one month were suddenly in a tent community, venturing out daily to look for work. There have been large homeless encampments in West Virginia over the years, including in Huntington and Charleston, although they were perhaps less visible than Diamond Village. With the current economy, West Virginia soon might be seeing more of these types of settlements.
While some safety and community concerns are only natural, it’s important to remember that these are people. Social media pages that deride and shame the homeless — and such pages focused on Charleston and Diamond Village exist — show how callous, cruel and demeaning attitudes toward these people can be.
Yes, some of these people are chronically homeless, typically because of mental health or substance-use disorder issues. Many just want to get back on their feet. They shouldn’t be mocked. They should be helped.
The most important thing to remember right now, though, is that Diamond Village exists in a unique situation. There wasn’t a pandemic that had killed nearly 150,000 Americans during the 2008-09 recession. As the CDC noted, breaking up Diamond Village now could sever connections the homeless do have with services trying to help them and increases the risk of spread in a place in West Virginia that already is a hotspot for the virus.
Morgantown officials and volunteers need to continue working with these people to get them into treatment or housing, and some progress has been made on that front. But clearing these people out shows little regard for their human dignity and poses a greater risk to the entire population.