For the homeless, the streets of Pittsburgh are truly mean, according to a report released last week by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The report singled out the top 20 "meanest cities," ranking Pittsburgh No. 20 out of 224 cities in America, based on the city's criminalization of the behaviors associated with homeless people -- things like public sleeping, loitering and begging.
Pittsburgh didn't make the top-20 list last time the study was done, in 2004. But the 2005 report criticizes the city's new panhandling ordinance, which restricts where and when panhandling can take place. There are prescribed distances from queues, ATMs, churches, restaurants and bus stops, and begging after dark is prohibited. The new measures were strongly backed by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership as a way to clean up the city.
"Criminalizing homelessness is not only unjust; it's irrational public policy," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the Coalition. "It exacerbates the problem with a criminal record."
"I think it's really unfortunate on the part of the report's authors and unfair for the city to be characterized as 'mean' based on this ordinance," says Jonathan Cox, director of operations for the Partnership. "The ordinance has nothing to do with the homeless population. We took pains to stress that this focuses on the behavior of panhandling. There are many people who panhandle who are not homeless. The report really confuses these issues that we took great pains to separate."
The report also criticizes the ordinance's potential to curtail the ability of charities to ask for money that supports services for the homeless, quoting the concerns of a Salvation Army official over their Christmas kettle operations. The Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union fought the ordinance as an obstacle to free speech.
"The issue of secure, safe, supportive housing for homeless people, giving access to necessary services is far more important" than any potential problem from panhandling, says Vic Walczak, executive director of Pittsburgh's ACLU. "That's not something the city has taken on."
Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the Coalition, believes that "being designated a mean city stirs up the debate" in places singled out by the study.
"Unfortunately, the previous mayoral administration was none too sensitive to homeless rights," says Walczak. "We hope [Mayor Bob] O'Connor will be more so."