For nearly five months, the Charleston City Council has been stuck in the proverbial mud. A bill aimed at curbing needle litter has dominated the council’s last two meetings, with debate totaling more than five-and-a-half hours.
Frustration over the lack of work on other problems facing the community reached a boiling point April 5. Councilwoman Deanna McKinney, representing the city’s West Side, assigned across-the-board blame to council members and the mayor’s office for turtle-paced action on the real issues plaguing Charleston’s most impoverished community.
McKinney pleaded that everyone go see for themselves — the gun violence, dimly or unlit streets, unsanitary conditions, vacant lots, drugs, food insecurity — just to name a few.
“Walk or drive around the West Side, day or night, and tell me what you see,” McKinney said.
McKinney buried her only child, Tymel, 19, after he was shot and killed while sitting on his porch in April 2014. In the last seven years, McKinney has remained an outspoken advocate for curbing gun violence in the city, especially on the West Side. Then, less than 48 hours after her speech, Kelvin “K.J.” Taylor, 18, a beloved Capital High School student, was shot and killed standing on a West Side corner.
Harm reduction is so much more than needle litter, McKinney said, so why has this debate left out the children who continue to be killed by guns, and what will be done to protect them?
“Where is the cry for that type of harm reduction?” she asked.
Gun violence is just one of the many complex, multi-layered issues facing Charleston. Nowhere are these issues more visible than the West Side.
The 1,438 people who live in the West Side flats from the Elk River to Park Avenue have an average life expectancy of 62.3 — the 27th lowest of all 67,148 census tracts in the United States, according to 2010 Census results and subsequent data studies. The 2,183 people who live from Park Avenue to Iowa Street have an average life expectancy of 71.7, still well below the statewide average of 75.3.
The poverty rates in both census tracts — which cut the flats into two halves — are 37% and 39.7%, respectively, more than double the statewide rate of 18%.
“We’re at a very, very critical juncture for this community,” said the Rev. Matthew Watts, a longtime community advocate and pastor at Grace Bible Church. “Things could get much worse, and they could get much worse in a short period of time.”
The window, Watts predicts, is closing. In three months to a year, if city leaders cannot start pointing to real examples of holistic change, the neighborhood will be lost forever. Just think of how things have declined since the 2010 census, he said.
The mayor’s office and the City Council must change its approach to solving its problems, said Toni Young of Community Education Group, a nonprofit organization devoted to fighting HIV, hepatitis C and substance abuse. She said the council must shift its debate to address the “syndemic” with which the city is dealing.
When the world is engulfed by an infectious disease, it’s dubbed a pandemic. When multiple diseases and intertwined issues all play off each other — such as HIV, hepatitis C and substance abuse — it’s called a syndemic. An approach that doesn’t take on all these issues head-on is useless, Young said. Then, the social safety net and community health start to fracture.
“You can’t treat one piece without treating the other piece,” she said. “You can’t invest in one piece and not invest in the other two pieces.”
‘They just put us in prison’
The reality of who drug users are, and what they look like, has been the ignored underlying issue.
Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR, is the volunteer grassroots harm reduction group that’s been under fire for distributing syringes in a West Side church parking lot. Longtime residents have faulted the group for creating unchecked needle litter in the neighborhood, bringing with them crime and people high on drugs.
SOAR volunteers pushed back at recent council meetings, pointing to the lives saved by Narcan and infections prevented by clean needles distributed at health fairs. The group has offered HIV testing and provided a number of outreach services.
SOAR is a white-led organization. Nearly all its volunteers are white. Locals report only seeing white people being served by the organization.
A 2015 study estimates the minority share of the population at 36.2% from Elk River to Park Avenue and 55% from Park Avenue to Iowa Street. Black people make up 15.7% of Charleston’s total population, according to census results.
After state and local government gutted the Triangle District — a Black neighborhood — in the 1970s for the construction of an interstate, the Black people who remained in Charleston were mostly pushed to the West Side, after the same governments broke their promise of an organized relocation.
“We come from a different era,” said the Rev. Marlon Collins, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, which sits in what used to be the Triangle District. When drugs and addiction tore Black communities apart during crack’s reign, Collins said they were treated much differently. Second chances didn’t exist.
“They just put us in prison,” he said.
So forgive Black taxpayers, Collins said, if some take issue when they feel white people are threatening their quality of life. While compassion, recovery and harm reduction have long been deficient for Black Americans, when it’s white people struggling, hot meals, clean needles, water, shelter and support are readily available and often government-funded.
At the April 19 City Council meeting, Joe Solomon, a SOAR co-founder, turned the public speaker’s mic away from council members and faced the West Side residents. He apologized for not being a better neighbor.
“I turned around, in part, because the City Council clearly turned their back on people who use drugs over the last six months,” Solomon said. “But I also turned my back to City Council to directly face members of Charleston’s West Side, who I feel like we could have done a much better job communicating with as SOAR found sanctuary at the Unitarian church.”
Solomon said SOAR’s efforts started, tragically, in the Living AIDS Memorial Garden on the East End, where people “were literally transmitting HIV.” The group tried to find a home on the East End, then in Kanawha City as more people needed services. SOAR worked in a few other church parking lots on the West Side before settling at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston on the corner of Vine Street and Kanawha Boulevard West.
Solomon said the city historically has disinvested in the West Side,…