Homeless picture

Bob Shefner, executive director of Jefferson County Community Ministries, talks with Michael Oswalt while sitting on the left outside the center at 238 W. Washington St.

CHARLES TOWN – Mayor Bob Trainor is forming a special committee to study and help address problems from a highly visible group of homeless people gathering in—and occasionally disturbing and disrupting—downtown Charles Town.

“The idea is to get a better handle on exactly what we’re facing,” Trainor said. “We want to kind of get to the bottom of what the root causes are so that we don’t go in there with a solution that doesn’t solve anything.

“I don’t want to put a Band-Aid over it.”

The special committee will be comprised of city residents, downtown business owners and others interested or affected by the issue, Trainor said.

Bob Shefner and Councilwoman Jean Petti are already slated to be part of the group.

Shefner is the executive director of the Jefferson County Community Ministries, a charity organization of 45 local churches with various food, clothing and counseling programs that assist local individuals and families, including those who may be homeless.

Petti will represent the City Council. Trainor hopes to announce the rest of the members during a City Council meeting scheduled for Oct. 23.

Trainor acknowledged the city has received a string of complaints related to people — some known to be homeless and others who may not be — who are congregating downtown during the day and the evening.

Other complaints, Trainor said, were related to the homelessness issue, including used syringes being discarded in alleys, along with people urinating and defecating in alleys, doorways and public parks.

There have also been reports of individuals feeling as if they have been accosted on the street or feeling uncomfortable patronizing downtown businesses.

Trainor said some people have told him they now avoid visiting the Charles Town Library on East Washington Street, where some of the homeless congregate, both inside and outside.

Jefferson County Community Ministries has a current caseload of about 50 homeless people it is serving, a figure that has dropped in recent weeks.

The faith-based ministries group helps homeless people who struggle with issues ranging from drug addiction to mental illness to a past of childhood or adult trauma, Shefner said.

Every homeless person has an individual reason or circumstance that has led him or her to become homeless, Shefner said. But being homeless makes solving whatever troubles a person might be dealing with much more challenging to solve, he said.

“I think it’s been less now than earlier,” Shefner said of issues stemming from homeless citizens.

Charles Town officials have identified homelessness downtown as a problem to representatives from Main Street America, an organization the city has joined to help continue to economically and socially energize its downtown district, Shefner said.

“I think a lot of the difficulties that some of the downtown folks are having are more than a perception,” Trainor said. “I think it’s a reality.”

At the same time, the mayor reiterated that the downtown’s problems could stem not only from homelessness but also from other human issues or causes. “What we need to do first is to make sure that we understand completely what the issue is,” he said.

Charles Town police Chief Chris Kutcher will advise the special committee, Trainor said. The mayor said law enforcement will likely only be part of the solution to the problem.

“Law enforcement has a role, but law enforcement is not the solution necessarily,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a law against homelessness, for example.”

Trainor said it remains to be determined whether the city police force might change how it patrols or monitors the downtown. But added that recently increased police presence, including Kutcher himself walking more frequently on downtown streets, should already be noticeable.

“I want to stress that public safety is paramount,” Trainor said. “I want the citizens of Charles Town to realize that, hey, we see it. We see a problem here. We’re trying to address that problem, but we’re not going to compromise safety while we’re trying to figure it out.”

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