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As $8.3M plan passes, Pittsburgh council and mayor remain divided on homelessness

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council almost unanimously passed Mayor Ed Gainey's $8.3 million plan for addressing homelessness Tuesday — but only after a lengthy discussion revealed a rift between council members and the administration.

Gainey’s plan would distribute most of an $8.3 million federal housing grant to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which will use roughly $6 million to create more affordable rental housing for people experiencing homelessness or domestic violence. The plan earmarks another $1.5 million to support nonprofits seeking acquisition of private units that could include dorm-style buildings.

But with the city planning to close another tent encampment this week, some members said Gainey’s plan should have emphasized getting more people out of camps

“We have an immediate need on our hands, and to not use this money properly is just a crime to me,” said Councilor Anthony Coghill, who chairs council’s committee on homelessness.

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Coghill abstained from Tuesday’s vote in protest of the plan, while the rest of council voted in favor of it. But council leaders on homelessness issues agreed with Coghill that the city should target more funds for people in camps before building up apartments.

Councilor Deb Gross contended the current plan gives too much money “to projects that will still take several years before a single person gets housed.”

She added that better collaboration between council and the mayor’s office could have gotten more people indoors this winter.

“Council had a concurrent committee for nine months on solutions to homelessness. And there was no communication between the city department and the council committee,” Gross said. “There should have been.”

Gross said people living on the street were paying for the city’s inability to work together. “We could have already been housing people if we had … moved more quickly on allocating these funds,” she said.

Over the last two years, Gross and Coghill have proposed a half-dozen ideas to provide more services and housing to the city’s growing homeless population. All their ideas have stalled after failing to earn the mayor’s support.

But Coghill said Tuesday that his frustration doesn’t come from seeing his ideas languish. Though his proposal to build city-managed tiny home villages has been held up by the planning commission, Coghill said he would have preferred to see the federal grant used to fund any idea to get people out of tents.

“I’m just looking for it to be used for an immediate purpose that we need right now,” he said. “In no way was I implying… that this money should be used for tiny managed villages.”

Tents along a highway.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Fort Pitt Camp Closure

Council’s frustration comes as the city prepares to decommission a high-profile tent encampment along Fort Pitt Boulevard downtown. The site is across from Fort Pitt Commons, sandwiched between Fort Pitt Boulevard and the ramp to I-376. Dozens of tents have stood there for more than a year.

The city’s Office of Community Health and Safety said that at one time the camp had nearly 30 people staying there. As of earlier this week, 18 remained.  

Camilla Alarcon-Chelecki, who heads the city's Office of Community Health and Safety, said crews will begin decommissioning the site around 5 p.m. Wednesday. She said the city’s encampment committee — which determines whether and how to remove camps — had been monitoring the site because of its position near major roadways. The final decision to close it, she said, came after reported criminal activity.

“It’s always been a really bad place because it's so close to the road,” she said. “And there has been some violence and … criminal activity happening in the camp. Particularly sexual assaults to women.”

Alarcon-Chelecki said most of the people living at the site declined to move into open shelter space. Of the 18 counted earlier this week, she said six are being evaluated for more permanent housing options and one person agreed to take a shelter bed.

Outreach workers are relocating nine other people to other tent camp sites.

As for the remaining two, Alarcon-Chelecki said “there were some arrests” but declined to divulge specifics about the charges involved.

OCHS said the city expects to send public works crews to clean up any remaining debris from the site Thursday, after the camp is emptied out.

‘We need to know what the plan is’

Outside the $8.3 million investment of federal housing money, Gainey's administration has given few clear indications of his approach to homelessness. While the city has continued to invest in affordable housing and worked with the county to increase flexibility within the emergency shelter system, City Council has claimed that work has excluded them.

Nearly all members criticized a perceived lack of communication from across the hall at a meeting last week. Those sentiments were repeated before Tuesday’s final vote. Councilor Theresa Kail Smith said the mayor’s office backed council into a corner, where whether council members could show support for the city’s most vulnerable depends on approving a proposal they had no hand in.

She said proposals come before council “at the last minute when …we have no choice but to vote something up or down. We're either voting to help homeless people, or we're not.”

Councilor Bob Charland — whose district includes the South Side, where tent camps have popped up along the trails — said when a proposal comes with allocations already locked in, it becomes harder for council to do its job.

“If something comes to us and it’s … essentially take it or leave it,” he said, “then we’re not able to do what the charter empowers us to do.

“And that is something I have a real problem with on a fundamental level … the separation of powers between the branches of government.”

Kail Smith argued that council bears some responsibility for not holding the mayor accountable when that happens.

“I think that’s something that happens when you have five members that just do whatever [the mayor’s office] wants to have done,” Kail Smith said.

She added that council should be clued in on Gainey’s larger strategy for dealing with homelessness moving forward.

“We need to know what the plan is,” Kail Smith said. “We’ve spent a ton of money on affordable housing over the past few years. … It’s time to start seeing the results of some of that.”

She warned that she may vote against “any more dollars to go to anything unless we see in advance what the plan is.”

Other members who have met with the mayor’s office on homelessness claimed the federal housing grant was never brought up as a tool to advance some of council’s ideas.

The mayor’s office shared emails last week to all council members alerting them to a public hearing about the proposal. But Coghill said that was insufficient, considering how many times he met with members of the mayor’s staff about homelessness.

“They’ve had so many opportunities to discuss this with us,” he said.

Coghill echoed Kail Smith’s request for details about a comprehensive homelessness strategy, and said any plans should include input from City Council.

“I have yet to see any commonsense plan from this administration as to what they're going to do … other than allocating this money,” Coghill said Tuesday. “[Which] was done irresponsibly without any say so from council, who has been working diligently on this for two years.”

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.