HUNTINGTON - The nationwide opioid epidemic has spawned scores of byproduct problems touching virtually everyone in every community it hits, and naturally elicits a spectrum of opinions.

That cross-cut of the Huntington community's experiences and concerns on how best to address those matters peppered the more than 2 1/2-hour-long public safety forum Tuesday night at Christ Temple Church in Huntington.

Organized by Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya and Del. John Mandt Jr., R-Cabell, a panel of local experts representing public health, emergency responders, and homeless and addiction services sparked a fruitful presentation, fielding questions from the audience well past the scheduled 8 p.m. closing.

Speaking included Stacy Nowicki-Eldridge of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety; U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart; Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director of Cabell-Huntington Health Department; Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle; Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial; Gordon Merry and Connie Priddy of Cabell County EMS; Amanda Coleman, executive director for the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless; Pastor Mike Greider of Kentucky Recovery; Craig Hettlinger of the Huntington Addiction Wellness Center; and J.B. Akers of the Akers Law Firm in Huntington.

Major topics of discussion revolved around the public safety issues surrounding widespread opioid use, such as property and violent crime, homelessness, syringe litter and drug trafficking.

Stuart emphasized the sharp increase in federal resources that have been funneled to combat Huntington's local drug trade, and reiterated his hard-line stance as a self-proclaimed "lock 'em up" prosecutor. That mindset differs between incarcerating low-level offenders - many of whom are also in addiction themselves and deserve compassion - and those connected to larger, organized drug trafficking syndicates.

Locally, Zerkle and Dial jointly discussed a new initiative by their departments, coming next month to target crime specifically within Huntington's homeless community. Dial added that this venture doesn't target homeless people simply because of their socioeconomic status, adding that crime happens at all levels of society, but rather pinpoints known offenders within an otherwise generally peaceful group.

"We're not negatively concerned about their socioeconomic status. We're negatively concerned if you're committing crimes in our city," Dial said.

The plan is similar to what Akers outlined that had been used in Charleston among that city's homeless population three years earlier. In their method, homeless individuals were presented with options to either be connected to social services or provided the means to return to where they considered home.

On Cabell County's declining overdose totals, which fell by 40% in 2018, Merry and Priddy reiterated that overdose calls are not being coded as cardiac arrests, responding to a false theory floated in public to explain the drop. Merry said that while a call may be dispatched as a cardiac arrest by Cabell County 911, it's ultimately determined whether or not to be an overdose by the paramedic arriving on scene.

Priddy added that Huntington has grown to be a national model for how a community can recover from widespread addiction. That's because it was quick to admit it had a problem and worked to address it.

"We can't sit there and think it's somebody else's problem; it's our problem" Priddy said. "But what we did was to embrace the problem and decide that we're going to do something about it."

Coleman dispelled a handful of misconceptions about homelessness and how HIV has impacted her organization's work. More than half of those in Cabell County's cluster face "unstable housing" and many are outright homeless.

Coleman said that while Cabell County's homeless population has fallen from 227 in 2015 to 171 at the present, there's been a dramatic increase in "unsheltered homeless" (those on the streets rather than a shelter), leading to the perception there are more homeless individuals in Huntington. More than 30% of these individuals have some mental health issues, making it difficult for them to find stable housing.

While most are from Cabell County, the majority of those not from Cabell County come from Logan, Lincoln and Mingo counties, Coleman said, counties that don't offer the homeless services Cabell does.

There was no shortage of hands raised when it came time for questions from the public, though most rather made comments of support, with a handful of distractions.

One man suggested voting down the levy that supports funding to the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, but was met with near silence except for a few negative remarks. Another woman asked those currently in a recovery program, which made up around one-third of the auditorium, if the department's syringe exchange had enabled their addiction. None raised their hands, but all raised their hands when asked if it did not enable them.

Sobonya ended the forum by saying more forums will be scheduled in the future, with at least one more set before Christmas.

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