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City of Pittsburgh set to clear Downtown homeless camp next week

Tents sit along a patch of grass on First Avenue Downtown.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Tents sit along First Avenue Downtown on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.

Part of a highly visible homeless camp in Downtown Pittsburgh is scheduled to be removed next week — the first such clearance under a policy that city officials drafted this summer.

Crews will clear about eight tents sitting on a patch of grass along First Avenue, across from office buildings. City workers have posted warning signs at the site indicating that it will be cleared at 5 p.m. Tuesday. But the precise timing of the clearance may depend on weather conditions, and whether the seven people who regularly dwell at the camp have been able to relocate to alternate housing.

The city’s Office of Community Health and Safety has been lining up other housing options for those living there, said OCHS director Camila Alarcon.

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Alarcon said the city is "working to make sure that everyone has their desired housing" — which could be a reserved shelter space, a hotel room or more permanent housing options.

Pittsburgh Public Safety director Lee Schmidt said the camp poses an urgent concern because people staying there have reported assaults, sexual violence, robberies and drug crimes. He said the city has found criminals using the camp as a hideout, even though they are not homeless themselves.

“People will come and stay in an encampment or engage in illegal activity, thinking they can hide [among] the folks that are truly unhoused,” Schmidt said. "The camp poses a high safety risk to the individuals who reside there due to its proximity to the public right-of-way."

No one was at the camp when WESA visited it Wednesday, though two notice signs were posted on trees near the tents.

“You are prohibited from continuing to camp in this area after it is decommissioned,” the signs read. “The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County continue to offer homeless services [that] include shelter options, medical care, and mental health services.”

Just feet away from the First Avenue campsite is another batch of tents along Grant Street near I-376. Schmidt said that camp will remain — at least for now. City officials will discuss whether to clear that site in the coming weeks, and Schmidt said the city wants to find “similar accommodations” to those the city is providing for people at First Avenue.

In any case, he said, the Grant Street site "is further from the … sidewalk and poses less of an immediate safety risk" than the one the city plans to clear next week.

Even dismantling one camp is likely to come as welcome news to some in the Golden Triangle. During a public discussion with administration officials Wednesday, members of City Council said they have received several complaints from nearby businesses about the First Avenue site.

“You hear businesses are moving out of there,” said Council President Theresa Kail Smith Wednesday. “They’re crying for help.”

A sign posted at a homeless encampment along First Avenue warns residents of an impending closure.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A sign posted at a homeless encampment along First Avenue warns residents of an impending closure.

New policy for shutting down camps takes effect

Schmidt said the decision to clear the camp was based not on upset businesses but "on data that we see from police [and] information we receive from outreach workers.”

In fact, the First Avenue clearance appears to mark the first use of a new Gainey administration policy for clearing homeless encampments. The policy, which WESA first reported on in June, sets priorities for when police should clear camps and how much notice is required before crews remove belongings.

The plan calls for the city to sweep camps in a number of scenarios including:

  • When camps are located in a public space — such as city parks, baseball fields, or tennis courts — for which people can obtain a permit for exclusive use
  • When camps are considered to be trespassing on private property owned by a government entity or authority
  • If there’s clearly visible use or sale of illegal drugs, or credible reports of violence
  • If any activity threatens critical infrastructure, such as a fire beneath a bridge
  • When tents are within 10 feet of roads, trails, sidewalks bus shelters and other parts of the right of way;

There were unconfirmed reports last month that the city had closed an encampment under the P.J. McArdle Roadway Bridge on the South Side, but Schmidt said the city has not decommissioned the site. While a fire at the camp prompted first responders to put out the flames and clear away debris, Schmidt estimated that about seven people still stay at the site.
The fire qualifies the camp as an infrastructure hazard, but Schmidt said the recent cleanup makes the location — which has existed for decades — less of a threat. He added that investigators determined the recent blaze was “intentionally” set by someone “who was not affiliated with the folks that have been staying there.”

Still, the city has begun a study of conditions at all its encampments. A review of known sites is being carried out by OCHS staff, along with other city and county officials, and Bridge Outreach, a local nonprofit that advocates for people experiencing homelessness.

“We have been meeting sometimes twice a week… to ensure that not only are we providing services, but we have the right and accurate count of people” living on the street, said the OCHS's Alarcon. She estimated that as many as 200 people are experiencing homelessness in the city. (Allegheny County estimates the number countywide is between 800 and 900.)

Although several camps in the city appear to meet the new policy's criteria for closure, Alarcon said the committee will evaluate each site before deciding to shut it down.

“This committee has been a great place to discuss the best solutions for people and provide them with the right services and resources,” Alarcon said.

'Some of those people will never come inside'

More indoor accommodations will likely become available as the colder weather rolls in: Alarcon said she expects city and county officials to have final details about temporary winter shelters in the coming weeks.

But the city hasn’t made progress on providing more permanent housing options. In May, several City Council members recommended the city invest in a dorm-style apartment complex, build a village of tiny homes or creating a new low-barrier shelter. While those ideas were alluded to during Wednesday's City Council discussion, none has moved forward.

City leaders acknowledged any of the proposed ideas would come with a significant price tag.

“We need to be cognizant [that] until there's housing for everyone in transitional space, shelter space for everyone in the city, we are going to have to be realistic that there will be encampments," Schmidt said.

He added that even if sufficient affordable housing became available, the city would still have to provide basic services for people living on the street.

“There are people in our city that have been outside for a significant amount of time — 20 years, 30 years,” Schmidt said. “Some of those people will never come inside. So we have to figure out how to support them and find ways that they can live safely.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.