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Gainey defends policy on homelessness as Pittsburgh begins to close Downtown encampment

Tents sit inside a grass median between Fort Pitt Boulevard and the ramp to I-376.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The city will close this encampment along Fort Pitt Boulevard Wednesday.

While crews begin clearing a Downtown homeless encampment Wednesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey is defending his approach to homelessness amid criticism from City Council.

“We may not always agree on different things, but that's part of government. We'll come to a resolution,” Gainey said at an unrelated press event. “The key is that we have a certain ideology that we believe works. They do too.”

The mayor and some members of council are at odds about how to prioritize support for the city’s homeless residents. Council members want to see the city do more to provide secure housing for people living in encampments: Gainey has emphasized freeing up shelter space by investing in affordable apartments for those ready to move on.

Council members have questioned how soon the mayor’s approach would help people living in encampments because permanent housing can take years to complete.

In the meantime, the city is closing a high-profile tent encampment where as many as 30 people once lived.

As WESA first reported Tuesday, the city plans to close the camp along Fort Pitt Boulevard Wednesday. Police and outreach workers were seen talking with people near the campsite late Tuesday and again Wednesday morning.

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.

Camilla Alarcon-Chelecki, who heads the city's Office of Community Health and Safety, told WESA that the site’s position near the roadway has always violated the city’s policy surrounding when and how to close camps. But a city-county homeless committee decided to close the site after there were reports of violent crime, including sexual assaults.

Gainey reiterated those grounds for closure Wednesday, describing the campsite as “unsafe.”

“My No. 1 issue was always to keep everybody safe,” he said.

The Office of Community Health and Safety said that 18 people lived at the site as of earlier this week. One person was given shelter space, three were offered transitional housing units and three others entered rehab. The office said some at the camp were arrested, but declined to say what charges were involved.

Nine people living at the camp declined to take a shelter bed, according to the city. They will be relocated to other campsites, according to Alarcon-Chelecki.

Public works crews are expected to clean up debris after the camp is officially closed at 5 p.m. Wednesday. While officials did not say what will become of the triangular patch of grass where the tents were pitched, crews dumped boulders at another campsite after it was closed last year.

WESA saw crews placing boulders along a hillside near the camp Wednesday.


A house divided

Differences about how to manage the city’s homeless crisis came to a head during council’s deliberations over an $8.3 million federal housing grant last week. Council passed the mayor’s plan Tuesday, but not without lengthy comments accusing the mayor of failing to coordinate with the legislative branch.

Some council members argued that the city should first focus on getting people out of camp sites, where they are most vulnerable, before investing in affordable apartments.

But Office of Management and Budget director Jake Pawlak said right now, there is nowhere for people in shelters to go when they’re ready to move into long term housing.

“There's nowhere for the folks who are in the shelters to go as their situation stabilized,” said Pawlak. “[And] that prevents others from getting that first round of support.”

Council also criticized a lack of communication from the mayor’s office Tuesday. Gainey and his staff denied there was a problem

“Like anything else, if they have questions, they can contact us and we'll answer,” Gainey said. “But they can never say we haven't been transparent.”

Kyle Chintalapalli, the city’s chief economic development officer, noted that the proposal for how to spend the federal housing grant went through a lengthy process with the county’s Department of Human Services. Those deliberations included multiple public hearings.

“There have been conversations with DHS in terms of the way to help through the bottleneck,” Chintalapalli said, adding that those conversations helped the city focus on affordable apartments instead of immediate shelter options.

Pawlak added that while the city is spending most of the grant on apartments, there will be investments in other areas as well. The federal grant will also put $1.5 million toward private units for people living on the street.

“We're committed to a full continuum of housing support for folks,” Pawlak said. “[We’re] filling in those gaps so that we can serve the needs of everyone and get them not just immediate stabilization in housing, but ultimately back on their feet.”

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.