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Police working toward solving issues facing homeless population in Charleston

Charleston police say as the homeless population grows so do the costs for the city. A spike in crime and an overwhelming number of complaints all trace back to the homeless population. (WCHS/WVAH)

Charleston police say as the homeless population grows so do the costs for the city. A spike in crime and an overwhelming number of complaints all trace back to the homeless population.

Police estimate up to 1,000 people are living in the city without a place to call home, and while many who are homeless are actively trying to find work and permanent housing, others are committing crimes and taking up police resources.

“We're seeing it spread to parts of the city that we've never seen before,” said Lt. Paul Perdue, Public Services commander.

For Chris Johnson, it was a series of tough circumstances that led him to set up camp along the Elk River in Charleston.

Johnson came to the area for work, but after serving time in prison his 20 years, working as a mechanic didn't mean much.

"I’ve been out for three years, but I don't have operator's licensing. That kind of narrows my window of employment,” Johnson said.

It's been six months now searching for stable income and permanent housing.

"I know the choices I’ve made have put me here, but this is ultimately all I can do for the time being,” Johnson said.

About 400 people such as Johnson living homeless in Charleston go downtown to receive services or stay in a shelter.

"The food, the clothing, the mail . . . We just want to be a home for people,” Covenant House Director David Bennett said.

Perdue said the city has attracted people from just about everywhere in the country.

"When you come here, the people are nice. They're a giving people. As West Virginians that's what we do, and we've seen it in water crisis and floods in the past. That's part of what we do, we help our fellow man,” Perdue said.

The majority, an estimated 600 people, don' t accept help. They form encampments and squat in abandoned homes.

"Drug usage, alcohol, squatting, urination, defecation, all that kind of stuff,” Perdue said.

Bennett said the situation "makes a lot of individuals who are struggling just to live in the street, it's giving them a bad notice from the community."

It's not cheap. Tony Harmon, Charleston’s building commissioner, said the city removes about 50 abandoned structures per year, but right now there are nearly 600 sitting vacant. In the past six months alone, boarding them up costs the city $15,000 in plywood.

The cost keeps rising as people continuously keep breaking into the boarded up homes. Charleston police have created a hybrid unit to combat the problem -- by car, bike or on foot. Police Chief Steve Cooper selected a team of six officers based on their experience, professionalism and ability to solve problems to take on one of the city's biggest problems.

"Just in the last month, they've made over 100 arrests," Cooper said. "They’ve cleared numerous structures. They're very active from the moment they come to work until the day ends."

In just over two months, the team has checked more than 50 abandoned homes, served nine warrants for homes to be removed and gave eviction notices to 21 encampments, including the spot where Chris Johnson had already begun preparing for winter.

"Not only does he have his tarp around it, but he's got it secured all the way around the side and secured down, too,” Perdue said.

“I grew up on a river, so I know it's going to get cold right here,” Johnson said.

Every day, Johnson walks to Covenant House to check his mail, hoping to be approved for housing.

"I’m putting in an effort to get out of this situation, just don’t have no other choice at the moment,” Johnson said.

Without a steady income, he is stuck on a waiting list.

"If you're wanting housed dude, I will work on it,” Perdue said.

Perdue is working with Johnson to get him into a stable living situation in Charleston after he was evicted from his encampment last Friday.

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