People from all over the world are flocking to The Nelsonville Police Department’s Facebook page, calling actions by the department insensitive to homeless people.
NPD Police Chief Scott Fitch is saying those people are misinformed.
On Thursday, The Nelsonville Police Department page made a post to the page, written by Fitch. The post stated the department had been cleaning up “makeshift homeless camps” that had been “popping up on secluded city property.”
Photos attached to the post depicted several dwellings in the woods, and NPD officers clearing out trash.
In the letter, Fitch said there had been numerous complaints from Nelsonville residents that homeless individuals were soliciting money on the bike path, and behaving in a “suspicious” manner.
“I want everyone to be able to utilize the bike path without being harassed or afraid to use it due to the fear of encountering suspicious people while walking, jogging, riding a bicycle etc.,” Fitch said in the post.
Fitch continued in the post, saying they had found drug paraphernalia and were utilizing the ATV to haul trash out of the woods.
At the time of publication, the post had more than 2,300 comments and hundreds of shares, many from people in other states, and even abroad with people from Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere sharing their opinions on Nelsonville.
“Wooh — I’m getting beat up,” Fitch said to The Athens Messenger.
Fitch told The Messenger that the people from outside of the area commenting with what he said were generalizations and misconceptions that do not understand the reality of the situation in Nelsonville and Athens County.
“I think there is a lot of misconception of people in ‘Facebookland’ — we’re not picking on the homeless,” Fitch said. “I understand they’re down on their luck, downtrodden, and some, drug-dependent. However, we respond to the calls and complaints we get.”
In Athens County, there are very few resources for those struggling to find shelter or for those struggling with drug dependency. There are several rehab centers in Athens County, but only one shelter for the homeless, Timothy House, in Athens.
Fitch said he wanted to make it clear the Nelsonville Police Department offered these resources to every homeless person they encountered, including offering transportation to shelter, the Timothy House, or a rehabilitation center.
“First of all, I appreciate people’s interest in homeless people, nobody is picking on the homeless, I appreciate the situation they’re in,” Fitch said.
However, many commenters did not feel that way.
Síomha Nic Gabhann, who appears to be from Ireland, asked if the NPD had actually tried to help the homeless population.
“And did you provide the homeless people who built the camps out of pure desperation with alternative accommodation?” Nic Gabhann asked. “Or were you just in it for the virtue signaling snaps of you tearing the camps down.”
Fitch said during the clearing, they did not encounter anybody, and if they did, they would have offered assistance if they sought it.
He said much of what they had cleared out was taken from resident’s trash and they did not take any personal items.
And if they did find personal items, they would hold them at the police station and try and locate the owner and return their property to them.
“People who say we don’t have a heart or don’t care about them, they’re not well informed,” Fitch said.
Nick Clark, who does not appear to be from Athens County, commented, saying it is “illegal to be homeless” in Nelsonville.
“A quick Google search shows that your town has no homeless shelter, food pantry, or women’s shelter,” Clark commented. “So it’s basically illegal to be homeless there and there are no services available to help those people?”
Fitch said people on Facebook were offering many solutions, but wouldn’t come up with any suggestions for funding.
“Unfortunately we have only the resources in our area to offer them and none of them are in the City of Nelsonville,” Fitch said.
Fitch said he would love to see a community initiative to address homelessness in Nelsonville, and would even volunteer his time for such a project.
“All the suggestions I’ve read, they all require funding. If someone wants to tell us how to get the funding, I’ll lead the charge for it.”
Fitch also said the homeless population, which established itself close to the bike path, was the source of numerous complaints for drug use and soliciting along the path, making it unsafe for families.
“God forbid some kid finds this needle and sticks himself and is exposed to all these kinds of diseases,” Fitch said.
Some commenters defended the NPD.
Melissa Allen, 38, of Mason, WV, grew up and works in Athens County, and said those commenting did not understand the reality of Nelsonville and the region.
“My issue with people complaining is no one wants to pitch in and help these people but they want to complain when all they are doing is trying to make a PUBLIC place safe for everyone,” Allen said on Facebook.
She added a link to her comment for Athens shelter listings and encouraged those commenting to help by donating to them.
“If everybody wants to help and get all upset because stuff got thrown away or whatever the case may be, then get out there, go find these people and help them,” Allen said. “Otherwise you’re just armchair quarterbacks.”
Many of the comments were not criticizing the NPD specifically, but said the whole system of policing was broken.
Fitch said he did not delete any comments from the post as some commenters alleged, and said he respects their opinion.
“People’s entitled to their opinion and I respect it whether I agree with it or not,” Fitch stated. “If people don’t like law enforcement in general, that’s unfortunate, but I’m not dedicating my resources to try and change their opinion.”
Ultimately, Fitch said he wants to address citizen complaints and make the bike path area safer for the community.
“If you’re committing crimes in Nelsonville, what else can we do,” Fitch said. “For people to say we don’t care, it’s unfortunate they feel that way.”