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Homelessness: Hoping to Avoid Sweeping Changes

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A 2003 court agreement requiring the city to give one-week notices before cleaning out homeless encampments expired on May 9 ... and advocates for the homeless are trying to get the city to make sure this and other provisions remain the city's practice.

 

The rules, sought in a federal lawsuit by the Pittsburgh ACLU and four homeless men, were touted by local homeless advocates as among the best in the country at that time. They included a designated place for the homeless to claim any belongings bagged during the cleanup.

 

Now, some of those advocates are vowing to wrest a permanent agreement from the city so they won't have to return to square one in the future.

 

"I'm not going to let it die. I need some kind of guarantee that they're going to stick with this," says Mac McMahon, who as a member of the Homeless Outreach Coordinating Committee was involved in negotiating the original agreement. "If we have a written agreement ... we'll have a legitimate process to work out the differences without going to court, and I think the city would love that."

 

Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for the mayor's office, says the city will carry on as though the agreement were still in effect. "We're not going to change anything just because the document has expired," he says. "We will continue to behave according to those provisions." Asked whether the mayor would consider putting the promise in writing, Skrinjar recommended that the homeless advocates' committee raise the matter with the city solicitor.

 

Even though it is unclear when ... or if ... the city and the advocates will head to the negotiating table, some of what was included in the agreement has evolved into standard city practice. Metal signs were recently affixed near several spots Downtown that the homeless call home, such as Point State Park and the North Shore. The sign warns that cleanups take place every Tuesday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Before the settlement, the homeless often found their possessions, including family photos and prescriptions, wiped out in unannounced sweeps.

 

Guy Costa, director of the city's Public Works department, whose crews are responsible for cleaning up the homeless camps, said hanging the metal signs saves the trouble of papering written warnings all over Downtown every time a sweep is scheduled. When the city began to comply with the advance-notice requirement in July 2003, there were complaints that the notices were either omitted or vandalized.

 

But one major kink in the agreement remains: No one has devised a convenient way for the homeless to reclaim their belongings.

 

The South Side boathouse, once designated for materials collected in the camps, was torn down by the city in late 2004. Even when it was still standing, it proved to be an impractical retrieval system, McMahon says, because the homeless had to call for an appointment to get their possessions back. The belongings collected have since been moved to Public Works headquarters at 611 Second Ave. For three years, says Costa, no one has claimed their stuff.

In talking to the homeless, McMahon says, he found that their distrust of institutions and fear of arrest made them reluctant to come forward.

 

The homeless are generally long gone before city work crews arrive, Costa counters. All that's left is trash. "We're doing personal garbage pickup," he says. "It's been frustrating for us."

The committee plans to meet soon with the ACLU's Vic Walczak, who served as the homeless plaintiffs' attorney, to discuss steps toward a permanent agreement. "It's premature to say" whether the ACLU would get involved in seeking future written rules, Walczak cautions. "What I can say is, we spent a lot time to get these protections. We'd like to work with the advocates to ensure the protections continue."

 

Besides representatives from various social-service agencies, the committee includes officials from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, a Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership representative and at least one formerly homeless person.

 

As preparation for the July 11 Major League Baseball All-Star game heats up, McMahon and other advocates are concerned that the homeless, especially those who camp out on the North Shore within sight of PNC Park, could become easy targets for city sweeps.

Concludes Costa: "It's the mayor's initiative to redd up the city."

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