Downtown Parkersburg, WV. Photo by Ellie Heffernan

PARKERSBURG — In her nearly two years on City Council, Wendy Tuck says she has heard a lot of harsh conversations about how to handle the city’s opioid crisis. 

“Whenever people start blaming addicts, all I can think of is my sister and her son,” Tuck said. 

Tuck’s nephew died by suicide after struggling with addiction, and Tuck was with her sister when she identified his body.

“Watching her look at his body… it was just horrible. Going through the funeral, going through her grief, it took her 10 years to bury his ashes.” 

This experience is partially why Tuck was the only dissenting vote on a city ordinance that she says would hurt people like her nephew and many neighbors who’ve died from overdoses. The measure passed in June 2021 and put a temporary moratorium on new residential substance use treatment facilities, sometimes called “inpatient rehabs” and recovery residences, sometimes called “halfway houses” or “sober living homes” within Parkersburg’s city limits. 

At the time, officials said this move was driven by an exponential growth in treatment and recovery beds citywide since 2017. And many of the recovery homes operated with no oversight. But despite evidence that well-run recovery residences have a largely positive effect on a community, Parkersburg officials blamed rising crime and homelessness in the city on people leaving these facilities and treatment centers.

“Whether they’re from out-of-state or out-of-town, there is no mechanism for when those folks either voluntarily complete their treatment program or get kicked out because they don’t comply,” Mayor Tom Joyce told state lawmakers last year. “They just turn them loose on the streets of Parkersburg.”

Now, despite a lack of data showing that increases in nonviolent crime are linked to the facilities, Parkersburg has passed more permanent restrictions, making it virtually impossible to build new residential substance use treatment facilities within Parkersburg’s city limits. The council also restricted where recovery residences can open — even if they’ve been vetted to ensure they’re well-run. 

Experts say these policies aren’t likely to reduce homelessness or crime, but restricting services is likely to increase overdose deaths. And these facilities — for both treatment and recovery — are designed to work together. As city officials target multiple parts of the treatment and recovery ecosystem, the move could make things worse. 

Restrictions based on misleading statistics 

Back in 2017, one of Wood County’s elected officials wanted more residential substance use treatment facilities. 

“We had people dying in the streets. We had them dying in abandoned homes. We had them dying in the park. We had them dying at parties,” remembered State Del. John Kelly, R-Wood, in a recent interview. 

So, Kelly sponsored a bill that helped expand residential substance use treatment statewide, originally pushing for at least 100 new treatment beds in Wood County. 

But then overdose deaths continued rising. Millions were spent on new and expanded treatment facilities. And the county’s share of the state’s treatment beds grew to a point where Wood County had 27% of the state’s residential treatment beds and 9% of its certified recovery beds, despite having less than 5% of its population,  according to data from the state Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification. Officials like Kelly began thinking Parkersburg and Wood County had more treatment and recovery beds than they needed. 

When Parkersburg’s City Council met in June 2021 to pass a temporary ban on new residential substance use treatment facilities and recovery residences, they laid out a case for why this was necessary. 

“The City believes there is a correlation between the proliferation of substance abuse facilities and the increase in the homeless population . . .  Further, a significant number of persons residing in substance abuse facilities are not from the Parkersburg and Wood County geographical area” the ordinance read. 

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce testified about the temporary ban to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health, later that year. He cited statistics showing that, since 2017, various nonviolent crimes had increased citywide, which he attributed to people with substance use disorders leaving the city’s treatment facilities and recovery residences.  

But none of Joyce’s claims are backed up by available data, and he did not respond to multiple requests about his sources. Records from the Parkersburg Police Department show significantly smaller increases in crimes, such as shoplifting and failures to appear, than Joyce cited. They also show no clear correlation between increasing treatment beds and increases in nonviolent crime. 

Instances of shoplifting, trespassing and failing to appear in court were increasing well before the city added most of its new treatment beds. Shoplifting actually declined between 2019 and 2021, years when Parkersburg added many new residential treatment beds, according to data from the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification. 

There was also no consistent, multi-year increase in homelessness in Wood County during the last half of the decade, according to data from the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. Although homelessness rose sharply between 2017 and 2019, it decreased in 2020 and 2021, after the area added most of its new treatment beds. 

Amanda Moore. Photo by Ellie Heffernan

When officials baselessly blame people with substance use disorders for crime and homelessness, they also perpetuate stigma, said Amanda Moore, the Substance Use Disorder Intensive Division Director at Westbrook Health Services, which provides residential treatment in Parkersburg. 

“I think we are getting better about de-stigmatizing substance use treatment, but unfortunately, I think that comes from just miseducation, or people just having stereotypes about addicts,” Moore said. “It makes addicts not want to reach out for treatment. They don’t want to talk about it. They feel ashamed, which is a shame, because we have so many resources available in our community.”

Permanent restrictions passed, despite treatment gaps 

Despite the temporary ban’s faulty foundation, Parkersburg’s City Council followed it up with permanent restrictions. In May 2022, they passed two ordinances: one concerning recovery residences, and another concerning residential treatment facilities. Once again, Councilwoman Tuck was the only dissenting vote. 

This time, officials didn’t call it a moratorium, or a ban, but “reasonable accommodations for both the licensed treatment facilities and the residential group homes.” New treatment facilities and recovery residences would be allowed, they said. But partially motivated by concerns about property values, lawmakers placed restrictions on where they could go.  

“These folks have had issues with the law, and I understand they need help. But you do not put these kinds of facilities in upper-level neighborhoods,” said Del. Kelly. “You’ve got a lot of people that have spent a lot of money to purchase homes and live in that community . . . There are other areas of the city that you can do that.”

Instead, he said it would be better to site recovery residences in low-income residential neighborhoods or commercial zones. Extensive research has demonstrated that halfway houses, including recovery residences, don’t reduce residential property values, according to the American Planning Association. And research published in 2021 by a University of Chicago Press Journal demonstrated the same for substance use disorder treatment facilities. 

Now, the May ordinances mean any new group residential homes can’t house more than 12 people or open within 1500 feet of an existing home. And that term includes a broad range of group homes –  from recovery residences to group homes for people with developmental disabilities. 

The City Council also sharply restricted new residential substance use treatment facilities. New facilities can’t be located within 250 feet of a residential district. Or 500 feet of a school. Or 1000 feet of an existing facility. 

Combined with pre-existing zoning restrictions, there are few places in Parkersburg’s city limits where a new residential substance use treatment facility can be located — and that’s even before property availability is considered. 

Map by Ellie Heffernan.

Per Parkersburg’s May ordinances, new residential substance use treatment facilities can’t be located within 250 feet of a residential district, 500 feet of a school or 1000 feet of an existing treatment facility. Using data from the WV Department of Education, the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification and the City of Parkersburg, we mapped out those existing facilities and residential zones. Then, we used a geographic information application to determine buffers around each of these areas where new facilities couldn’t be sited.

Parkersburg’s existing zoning ordinance means the treatment facilities would also be unable to exist in recreational zones. City officials say it’s possible they would be allowed in manufacturing zones.

The final map shows the areas where new treatment facilities would likely be allowed in green. The manufacturing areas — where they could potentially be allowed — are in orange.

Experts say that picking out different parts of the area’s treatment and recovery continuum like this is a bad idea, because the parts are supposed to work together. 

“[Recovery beds] can’t be as effective as they should be in the current environment because there aren’t enough services to support people as they’re leaving those facilities,”  said John Leite, director of the SUD Collaborative, which coordinates between different organizations working to help people impacted by substance use disorders. He said he supported temporarily limiting new treatment beds because of that imbalance.

But even though the ecosystem wasn’t perfect before, the City Council’s ordinances don’t address the area’s existing treatment gaps or growing overdose problem. 

Annual overdose deaths in Wood County more than doubled between 2015 and 2021. Although the entire state also saw these numbers spike during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wood County’s overdose deaths increased at a faster rate than the state as a whole, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.  

And right now, the county doesn’t have enough recovery beds for everyone coming out of residential treatment centers: there are over 100 more residential treatment beds than recovery beds. At Parkersburg recovery residence The Key to Living Sober, House Coordinator Brian O’Connor said he had 20 to 30 men waiting to get into his 33-bed facility last month.

“We don’t want to have more people on the streets. The first 24 to 48 hours is most critical for them,” O’Connor said. “So if they’re on the street, they have nowhere to go. They’re going to use again, or they’re going to run back into their old patterns, old places and things.” 

Wood County also has a significant gap between the number of people with opioid use disorders and the amount of medication-assisted treatment prescribed, according to research published in 2021 by the Urban Institute. This treatment can be provided as an outpatient service as well as in a residential treatment facility. But of over 1600 residents estimated to have opioid use disorders, barely a quarter are receiving medication-assisted treatment.

To start narrowing this gap, the county needs to build out a variety of treatment, recovery and harm reduction programs, said one of the project’s authors, Lisa Clemans-Cope. 

“If we just put the money into residential care, residential care is incredibly expensive, and also totally ineffective, if it doesn’t have the other part of follow-up outpatient care,” she said.

Clemans-Cope said the county could expand outpatient treatment by increasing access to buprenorphine, an evidenced-based medication-assisted treatment for people with substance use disorders. Only 11 health professionals prescribe buprenorphine in the entire county, representing just 6% of its prescribers, she said. 

And she says expanding treatment and recovery options is ultimately the best way to reduce overdose deaths — not restricting them.

“Restricting services is going to cause an increase in overdose deaths. And it’s going to be expensive, because you’ll have higher rates of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. And it’s not sound public policy for the long term,” Clemans-Cope said. “I think it’s really hard for people to come to terms with the fact that these are our families. These are our friends and our neighbors. It’s not somebody else’s. It’s us.”

Ellie Heffernan is the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.