One of the city's saddest chicken-and-egg scenarios is taking place on the North Side, where those attending a Feb. 11 community meeting debated which came first: homeless people, or the agencies that try to serve them.
"I've watched the homeless situation increase on the North Side," 26-year resident Randy Zotter said at the gathering, which was held in the New Hazlett Theater. "We have a large number of social services all moved into the Central North Side. How much more do you expect from us?"
Michael Glass, executive director of North Side Common Ministries, countered, "They're not here because we provide services. We provide services because they're here."
Service providers argue that the parks and proximity to bridges make the North Side a desirable location for the homeless. They also draw a distinction between the homeless people who use their facilities and those who choose not to -- the latter being more visible and more likely to disturb residents.
"We only serve, unlike some others here ... the people who are seeking services," said Light of Life executive director David Bugher. "I'm a North Sider myself. The people who are most problematic to us as neighbors are the largely mentally ill population who are, we call it, service-adverse. They just don't want to seek the services."
City Councilor Tonya Payne, who represents the area, hosted the meeting to give citizens a chance to take their questions directly to the people who provide services to the homeless. Reactions from the crowd were mixed while the providers attempted to "dispel some myths about what is going on in the community," as Glass put it.
"Randy's point was glossed over. ... I'm tired of being vilified," charged resident Kirk Burkley. "My wife was accosted by a homeless person in the park, and these answers are ridiculous. ... We are neighbors and we live here, too. And we deserve some respect."
One of the major bones of contention was whether the North Side is bearing an unfair share of the responsibility for caring for the city's homeless.
"Believe me, it is everywhere," maintained Richard Venezia, an administrator with the county's Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services. "We know you guys have an issue here on the North Side. Absolutely. But we have the same issues in East Liberty, Homewood, the East End, the South Side. The vast majority -- as hard as it may be to understand -- of our service providers are actually concentrated in the East End, the East Hills."
Jane Miller, from Mercy Behavioral Health, pointed out that "the North Side has a lot of shelters for men, but they have no women's shelters and no children shelters."
Numbers of homeless people are hard to track and hard to break down by neighborhood, but Miller said, "The west end of Allegheny County is suffering greatly. As a matter of fact, as you get towards Beaver County, because of the unemployment, I suspect the homeless situation is greater."
Mac McMahon, from Community Human Services, estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the city's homeless population lives on the North Side.
Audience members also voiced doubts over a county-initiated 10-year plan to end homelessness. The plan calls for the creation of "regional centers" to hold a variety of community-related programs; some residents expressed fears that the plan would mean even more services and homeless people coming to the North Side.
"We're not trying to move homeless from one area to another, if that's how you're interpreting it," Venezia told the residents. "There's no new services or engagement services that have been initiated on the North Side."
If residents were frustrated by the lack of concrete resolutions, they shouldn't have been surprised. "I'm going to caution you up front," warned Payne near the outset of the discussion: "The problem didn't start today and it's not going to end with just this meeting."