CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia (ACLU-WV) along with Wheeling attorney Alex Risovich announced a successful agreement with the city of Wheeling today regarding the enforcement of the city’s anti-habitation ordinance, but community advocates and organizers said more work remains.

As part of the agreement, the city has agreed to exempt a site and allow people experiencing homelessness to erect camps near the Catholic Charities Community Center. The city will also temporarily pause enforcement of the ordinance to give people time to move their belongings to the exempted site.  

“For months, our clients and others sought exemptions to this ordinance and were ignored,” ACLU-WV Legal Director Aubrey Sparks said. “We are glad that an exemption has been granted in this case, and that the city is now at least meeting its constitutional obligations.”

Sparks continued: “The Constitution sets the floor - those rights with which government actors must comply. But we shouldn’t be aiming for the floor, we should be aiming for the ceiling. Over the coming days and weeks, we hope the city will work with service providers and advocates on solutions that are not just constitutional, but also humane, practical, and compassionate.”

Kate Marshall, a facilitator with House of Hagar Catholic Worker House, a plaintiff in the case, agreed that more work remains.

“No person should be put into a position where their existence is illegal because they are poor,” Marshall said. “Filing a lawsuit was a last resort, but we could not stand by while the city effectively criminalized homelessness. We also could not remain silent while people experiencing homelessness witnessed bulldozers destroying what little they had.

“We are grateful to the ACLU of West Virginia for reminding the City of Wheeling that those experiencing poverty have the same constitutional rights as those with wealth. Much work remains, and we urge city officials to unite with service providers and community members to find genuine solutions that we have long asked for,” Marshall continued.

Ocean Smith, an ACLU-WV organizer and Wheeling resident, said community members must also demand more from elected officials.

“Meeting a constitutional obligation and crafting good policy are not one in the same,” Smith said. “While I’m happy that a site has been exempted, this legal action and the outcry from local community members should be enough to convince City Council that it’s time to revisit this travesty of an ordinance.

“If the council is unwilling to do so, then the voters of Wheeling should remove them from office in the next election,” Smith continued.