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Editorial: City right to clear out riverfront encampments

Sep. 08, 2013 @ 03:57 PM

Homelessness is a very complex problem.

There are an estimated 640,000 homeless people in the United States, and each represents a slightly different story. But experts begin by dividing the homeless into two broad categories, the sheltered and the unsheltered.

About 60 percent of the U.S. homeless are considered "sheltered," living in a wide range of transitional housing from missions and domestic violence shelters to residential programs, some paid for through government or nonprofit vouchers.

The "unsheltered" are living on the street, in abandoned buildings or some other place not intended for habitation. For some, the situation is fairly temporary, but others are what the Department of Housing and Urban Development categorizes as "chronically homeless" -- people who have been continually homeless for a year or experienced several periods of homelessness in recent years. Many also are suffering with mental or physical disabilities, mental illnesses or substance abuse.

Studies estimate that only about 12 percent of the homeless population is both chronic and unsheltered, but sometimes that 12 percent becomes very visible, sleeping in parks or panhandling on the street. It is a concern across the country, especially when regular encampments develop.

In Huntington, the Harris Riverfront Park has struggled with these camps through the years, and this week a joint effort of the police and homeless agencies helped clear out an area where 10-15 men were living. The men were warned in advance and offered information about services through the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless, the City Mission, Cabell County Information and Referral and other agencies.

That was the right move for the men and for visitors to the park.

Homeless encampments not only become unhealthy over time, but the inhabitants also can be victimized. Many readers remember a homeless man being attacked and killed at a riverfront encampment in 2002.

For the park, visitors can feel threatened by the panhandling, public intoxication and occasional altercations.

"You put that together and that kind of leads to a perception of the area not being safe," Police Chief Skip Holbrook told The Herald-Dispatch this week. "We've made too much progress ... to slip backwards."

The city needs to keep the park safe and accessible for the public, and these men need to connect with the services that will help put them on a path to a healthier and more stable life.

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