EDITOR’S NOTE: Political battles in West Virginia’s capital city over homelessness, HIV, needle exchanges, harm reduction, and overdoses have made headlines, notes BuzzFeed News, in an in-depth April 22, 2022 piece on Charleston WV. While the city’s troubles are mirrored in bigger metropolises, “these problems are uniquely concentrated in Charleston, which makes it a laboratory for the politics of homelessness, drug use, and overdose deaths,” the article observes. It quotes Joe Solomon, one of the heads of the nonprofit SOAR, which, until it was outlawed last summer, ran a needle exchange on Charleston’s West Side. “We are the capital of pain,” said Solomon, part of a group of activists and others running for City Council who support harm reduction measures like needle exchanges. He and a few other candidates and activists spent three nights in April living among the city’s unhoused population — sleeping under bridges, eating at a soup kitchen, and hurrying to shelters — to protest police “sweeps” of encampments. Charleston WV-based writer James Cochran was there the first night.
By James Cochran | for WestVirginiaVille.com
There are mayapples unfurling on the banks of the Kanawha River in the darkness. There are humans sleeping there, too, on this cold and rainy April night, and we are among them. Months ago, when he fought an ordinance criminalizing homelessness, Charleston City Council candidate Joe Solomon was invited by some unhoused folks to come sleep on the streets of Charleston.
These three nights, he has taken them up on the offer and invited us along. We’ll quickly be educated on the type of questions most of us have no need to ask, which the homeless have to answer every day.
Where can I go to the bathroom?
I stop in at the West Side Walgreens to pee before heading to the campsite, “just in case.” In my neighborhood, the bathrooms are unlocked. Here you must summon an attendant to unlock the door. I think about the other options that will await me later: bushes, river banks, darkened corners. There’s an uncertainty and risk attending even the most basic functions.
Where can I stay out of the rain?
The wind kicks up and the rain sets in as we arrive at Patrick Street and Kanawha Boulevard. One group has chosen a grassy ledge, shielded from view below street level, but exposed to the opening skies. Another group scouts out space under the steel girders of the bridge, a large dry area, but only feet from busy passing traffic, probing headlights, and the eyes of the cops.
We choose staying dry over staying out of sight. There is a loosely built structure of pallets around one cement pier. We check with the inhabitants. They don’t mind if we share some of the dry space with them.
What will I eat?
Wallets have been left at home, but some folks brought food to share. We have snacks and sandwich makings, but with most free food given out at specific times and places during the day it is easy to see that without money, transportation, or good planning a person could go to bed hungry on these streets. The following morning we’ll shuffle to one of the best food kitchens, where a police officer keeps watch while volunteers hand out corn dogs, yogurt, cereal, and hot coffee.
Where will I sleep?
Leon Sullivan was a famous social activist and civil rights leader born in Charleston in 1922. One day, they plowed an interstate through the historically Black neighborhood where he spent time, then named a nearby street and an exit in his honor. Now, the street in his name lies near the epicenter of the services that exist for the homeless in Charleston, and so attracts the largest gatherings of unhoused people.
On one side of the street is no shelter, and you will mostly be left alone by the cops. But under the overpass is posted state property. We hear many stories of harsh fines levied against those without a penny, which can mount up and become a felony on the third time, and then an arrest warrant. I can’t help but wonder what Leon Sullivan would think if he came back to Charleston today.
Here’s How Homelessness And Politics Meet Amid An HIV Outbreak In One US City: “We are the capital of pain.” | BuzzFeed News, april22.2022
Our group sleeps there the first night, but it is crowded and tense. The second night we are under the bridge, out of the howling wind and rain. We kick aside rocks and broken glass out of the dirt, just a few more animals making a nest. We smoke cigarettes and drink Pepsi, eat someone’s homemade corn muffins out of Tupperware. Everything is shared, even the stories of neurodivergence, hard times, recovery, self-medication and self-knowledge, all the loved ones lost to overdose.
Two long metal rods attached to the girders periodically achieve some sympathetic vibration spurred by the wind, a mournful clanging. None of us can decipher the meaning.
On the steps of city hall on a Thursday afternoon a small crowd gathers, rallying to support the rights of the unhoused. There are speakers; candidates, formerly homeless people, a guy who calls himself ‘Tim from Wendy’s’ who is living on these streets and says he summoned up all his courage to speak out loud. He tells of struggles, survival, felt daily contempt. He is heard, witnessed, and held in our collective heart on the hard limestone steps.
Joe talks about the opioid epidemic and the overdose crisis. Overdose deaths in Charleston WV are double the national average, many of them from the painkiller fentanyl. If we are No. 1 nationwide in deaths from painkillers, we are, indeed, the de facto capital of pain.
The only thing that can heal our pain is love, so we must become the capital of that, too, no matter what it takes.
The crowd disperses, but we stay in touch, texting about trespassing fines, housing vouchers, checking on friends. A brand-new public space at Slack Plaza has its grand opening. Half a million dollars has been spent including two riotously colorful, larger-than-life sculptures of musicians welcoming all to our community.
The benches at the bus shelter have been built on the slant, specially designed to make resting or sleeping there impossible. It is a gesture of disdain for the homeless, but also to the old, the infirm, and anyone who needs to take a load off and rest on a flat surface.
The dogwoods bloom along the boulevard, the wind ripples the surface of the river, and we all keep trying our best at being human.
James Cochran is a proudly Appalachian writer, transplanted from the soil of Southeastern Ohio to the hilly streets of Charleston, West Virginia. He embraces the practice of mindfulness through writing, and writing through mindfulness, and enjoys listening to the neighbor’s wind chimes.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: When it comes to West Virginia, what Bob Dylan said about something else. Plus, what’s up in the May 2022 issue of WestVirginiaVille.com
FIRST/PERSON: On the streets in “the capital of pain”: There are mayapples unfurling on the banks of the Kanawha River in the darkness of West Virginia’s capital city. There are humans sleeping there, too, on this cold and rainy April night, and we are among them. | by JAMES COCHRAN
5 QUESTIONS: On the Art of the Guitar: Spencer Elliott is a genre-defying solo performer based in Charleston WV, while also performing in the burning-down-the-house trio SE3. A look at keeping your day job while growing an international fan base.
CHARACTERS: ‘The Hobo Girl: She had many names and left many stories. The night ‘The Hobo Girl’ wandered into St. Albans, WV, like a footloose traveler from another time.
LISTEN/UP: Artists & Podcasters worth noting: From hip-hop innovator Shelem to podcasts worth hearing, a heads up from BLACK BY GOD: The West Virginian.
FIRST/PERSON: On Ukraine, Putin, Navalny & Zelensky: J. Michael Willard worked for Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller then went on to international career that landed him in Ukraine. Excerpts from his thoughts on Putin’s brutal invasion of the country where two daughters still live.
POETICS: Two by Colleen Anderson: Clean music. The notes fall one upon the other, / transparent. Closing my eyes on this city concert,/ I hear water, the song of melting snow on a hill / in Braxton County, in spring …
MAN/MADE: A brief meditation on ‘Reflected Glory’: A brief meditation on a shiny object in West Virginia’s capital city.
MORE BY JAMES COCHRAN
READINGS: Three from “Corona Time Capsule”: sept10.2021: ‘Feed Them on Peaches,’ ‘Grass Fire,’ and ‘¡Ya Basta!’ — three excerpts of poetry and prose from poet James Cochran’s forthcoming book “Corona Time Capsule.”
POEM: “Haymaking”: feb20.2021: We cut, rake, and bale / till the sun goes down and the dew settles on the fields, / then start again next morning once the dew burns off …