An ordinance aimed at regulating solicitation within the City of Charleston, was introduced at last night’s City Council meeting. The proposal recognizes free speech rights and the coexisting rights of all citizens to be able to enjoy public places safely. A task force has been working on several initiatives related to homelessness and criminal vagrancy in the City, and the group held a news conference Monday at Covenant House with Mayor Danny Jones to discuss the proposal.

“Several leaders of community agencies, city council, our Police Department, our faith community and my administration have been working together to address several issues related to the homeless population in our city and problems that have arisen from criminal vagrancy,” said Charleston Mayor Danny Jones. “People in Charleston are generous and want to help others in need, but too many criminal vagrants from other places have tried to take advantage of our generosity.”

One portion of the proposed ordinance seeks to restrict people soliciting in areas where there are legitimate public safety concerns related to vehicular traffic and limited space for pedestrians. This proposal is aimed at limiting monetary solicitation in high traffic areas, especially intersections, and areas downtown where outdoor dining constricts pedestrian traffic.

Another section of the ordinance requires anyone asking for money from other people without offering anything of value in exchange to obtain and display a permit. There are no fees related to the permitting process, and it applies to individuals and non-profit groups, such as the Salvation Army, that do fundraising in public places.

City Councilwoman Becky Ceperley chairs the Homeless Task Force and is the lead sponsor of the ordinance, along with the other women of City Council who helped form the task force in conjunction with City Attorney Paul Ellis. Together, they have been exploring what other communities have tried to do to address similar issues and researching the legal challenges to proposals that have been introduced elsewhere.

“Our task force is developing a wide consensus on several fronts toward meeting needs for our neighbors in need while curtailing problems related to criminal vagrants and overly aggressive solicitation,” Councilwoman Ceperley explained. “In addition to this ordinance, we are working to develop an educational campaign to redirect the generosity of our citizens away from giving money to people on the streets and instead giving to the non-profit organizations that are helping people in need throughout our network of services in the city.”

“The service providers in Charleston are committed to collaboration to help people trying to improve their lives and to solve problems related to crime,” said Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, which hosts meetings of the task force and is a key entry point for people seeking services in the city. “As we have faced new issues this summer, that spirit of collaboration was has expanded to include leaders of our city government, our faith community and law enforcement with very candid conversations, but also with agreement on several key initiatives.”

“This new ordinance will give our police officers new tools toward curtailing overly aggressive or unsafe solicitation and making it less attractive for people who have nothing to lose to prey on our citizens,” said Police Chief Steve Cooper. “The requirement for free permits for public solicitation will give us a better handle on who all is out there asking for money, and the high traffic restriction will improve public safety for pedestrians and drivers.”

Mayor Jones assigned the bill to both the Public Safety Committee and the Rules and Ordinance Committee of Council for public hearings and further action. It could come up for a final vote in City Council at the next meeting (November 20) or the subsequent meeting December 4.

The proposed ordinance is part of an on-going and dynamic strategy within Charleston to combat problems related to a rise in criminal activity by vagrants over the past several months. Other initiatives have included:

  • Enactment of a policy that disfavors outdoor encampments and squatting in abandoned buildings with a lawful process to close those encampments on both private and public properties;
  • City funding of $75,000 to the Prestera Center to add two outreach workers specifically dedicated to Charleston who have been working with Police and other City officials to address both homeless and criminal vagrancy issues in Charleston;
  • Donation of a vehicle to Prestera from the City to assist in their outreach efforts within Charleston;
  • Creation of the Family Reunification and Opportunity Enhancement pilot program that provides one-way bus tickets to homeless individuals who might be able to be more productive in other places where they have family or other potential opportunities for growth;
  • Approval by the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority (CURA) of $250,000 for the City’s abandoned building demolition program for removing several vacant, dilapidated and unsafe houses that have been repeatedly broken into by criminal vagrants to use as drug houses and to hide from law enforcement;
  • Council approval of an increase in the user fee so the City can hire 10 new police officers by next spring who will be specifically deployed to deal with issues related to criminal vagrants.

Chaired by Councilwoman Ceperley, the Homeless Task Force includes leaders and representatives of several entities:

  • Kanawha Valley Collective
  • Prestera Center
  • Covenant House
  • Charleston YWCA/Sojourners Shelter
  • Roark Sullivan Lifeway Center
  • Daymark
  • Manna Meal
  • Charleston Kanawha Housing Authority
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • United Way of Central West Virginia
  • West Virginia Health Right
  • The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation
  • Charleston Area Alliance
  • Kanawha County Public Library
  • St. John’s Episcopal Church
  • St. Marks United Methodist Church
  • Trinity Lutheran Church
  • City Council, including the Women of Council
  • Office of Mayor Danny Jones
  • Charleston City Attorney’s Office
  • Charleston Police Department
  • Charleston City Clerk
  • West Virginia House of Delegates