Gallipolis discusses homelessness, needle exchange

By Dean Wright -

GALLIPOLIS — During the Tuesday Gallipolis City Commission meeting, with a reported petition looking to end the Gallia Health Department’s needle exchange program moving about the Gallia community, commissioners and members of the public discussed their opinions regarding homelessness, the needle exchange and drug abuse.

Area resident Roma Wood asked the commissioners if they walked around Gallipolis City Park in the evening and said she felt the community was seeing more homeless about the area than normal and especially in the park.

“I know you know there is a real problem,” said Wood.

“It’s a public park,” said Commissioner Cody Caldwell. “We can’t make it illegal to be in a park.”

“It’s not for a homeless person to sleep in, is it?” asked Wood.

“We talked about if you pass an ordinance about no sleeping in the park, then what about the gentlemen that goes down there to watch the squirrels in the afternoon and accidentally falls asleep? He’s violated the ordinance the same as the homeless,” said City Manager Gene Greene. “We can’t pick and choose who we let into the park and what we let them do. We know there’s a problem with homeless. As (Gallipolis Police Chief Jeff Boyer) has said many times, it’s not a crime to be homeless…Not only Gallipolis, but every small municipality is having the same problem. Unless they do something illegal, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it…”

“It’s sad,” said Wood. “I mean a lot of them have checks and they tell you they’d rather drink and buy drugs…A couple three of them could (get) a little apartment. They don’t do it.”

Wood noted that there were a few “tent cities” about the area.

City Solicitor Brynn Saunders Noe noted that she had a conversation with an area police officer who said they were making their presence known in the park and having conversations with individuals that may be homeless.

“We have had several thefts from people who can’t provide an address, so they are pursuing them for things they can,” said Saunders.

“I asked him (Boyer), because I thought we were getting a bunch of (homeless) because of the needle exchange program, and he said not really,” said City Commissioner Mike Fulks. “He said most of them were renters that had been evicted and evicted and evicted an they’re to the point now people don’t want to rent to them now because they’re destroying places.”

Commissioner Beau Sang asked if there was a petition going about for the needle exchange program.

City Commission candidate Mike Brown said he had a copy of the petition looking to end the needle exchange.

“The city doesn’t have anything to do with the needle exchange,” said Caldwell. “We (as a county community) get rid of the needle exchange program, we’ll have needles (discarded in public places) still and Hepatitis C outbreaks and HIV outbreaks. So, do you want the needles or do you want the needles and infectious diseases?”

Area residents have questioned whether homeless or potential addicts had wandered into Gallia due to the reported closures of the needle exchange program in Charleston, W.Va, and if such programs encouraged more drug use in the area.

“It’s one of those things where I don’t think there’s a good answer,” said Fulks.

The Gallia Health Department released a statement on social media Thursday clarifying its intentions and mission with the needle exchange program. Following is a reprinting of the news release.

“Recently there have been some misconceptions regarding the Gallia County Health Departments Harm Reduction Program. Many of these misconceptions have stemmed from the lack of knowledge regarding the program and its operational goals. This program was not designed to treat individuals suffering from addiction. The Gallia County Health Department does not offer mental health services, although we do provide treatment information and referrals for addiction services. This program was created as an evidence-based CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) best practice. The Health Department exchanges dirty syringes for clean ones. By doing so, the Health Department is decreasing the risk for the spread of infectious diseases, primarily Hepatitis C, which is spread blood-to-blood. This also keeps the vast majority of dirty syringes out of our parks and public spaces because individuals must exchange in order to receive clean syringes. To date, 190,785 syringes have been destroyed and 146,914 have been distributed. It is incorrect to state that removing the exchange program will decrease the amount of individuals suffering with addiction from frequenting Gallia County. Of the 1,234 exchange program visits in 2019, 915 are Gallia County residents, 212 are Point Pleasant (W.Va.) residents, and 107 other. The vast majority of individuals utilizing these services are our community residents. Removing this program will directly impact Gallia County. Since the program was implemented in August 2015, Hepatitis C cases have decreased in Gallia County. In 2016, there were 138 new Hepatitis C cases, 105 in 2017, 100 in 2018, and 70 in 2019. Removing access to clean syringes will not curb the use of drugs. It would only increase the amount of sharing and reusing syringes, in turn increasing the amount of infectious disease spread by this community along with the improper disposal of dirty syringes. The program goal is prevention, not permission. Preventing just one case of Hepatitis C and HIV will save taxpayer dollars, not to mention the life of an individual suffering with addiction. The syringe service program is also 100% ran on donations. Taxpayer dollars are not utilized to run this program. The Health Department publishes this information yearly in our annual report. If you would like any more information, do not hesitate to contact the Health Department.”

Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342.

By Dean Wright