Legal advocates worry that a draft Pittsburgh policy on homeless camps doesn’t do enough to enshrine constitutional rights around cruel and unusual punishment at a time when the Smithfield Street shelter’s closure will leave more than 100 people seeking alternative arrangements.
As the closing of the Smithfield Street shelter nears, the City of Pittsburgh has drafted a policy on whether, when and how to close tent encampments, outlining factors like signs of drug use as justification for evacuating people from the area.
Two legal advocacy groups, one of which sued the city over its handling of encampment closures in the early 2000s, said the draft indicates that city administrators are thoughtfully considering the issue. But they worry that the policy doesn’t do enough to enshrine constitutional rights around cruel and unusual punishment at a time when the Smithfield Street shelter’s closure, set for June 21, will leave more than 100 people seeking alternative arrangements. They also called on Allegheny County to be involved in the process of finalizing the city’s policy.
“The county seems to be acting as if it doesn’t have a role to play in upholding the constitutional rights of its unhoused populations,” said Dan Vitek, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Community Justice Project. CJP and the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] are engaged with the city in talks on encampment policies. “As the city is trying to do what is necessary, the county is actively shutting down available beds.”
The draft policy was recently previewed by members of the county’s Homeless Advisory Board, whose members had various reactions to the document with one member, Chase Archer Evans, describing the draft as effectively criminalizing homelessness.
The policy calls for clearing or “decommissioning” encampments if, among other factors:
- They are located in a public space for which people can obtain a permit for exclusive use, like a city park or tennis court
- There is evidence of human trafficking, though it does not specify what would constitute such evidence
- There is a concern for health or safety, like human waste or trash in the open
- Tents are 10 feet or closer to roads, trails, sidewalks, bus shelters and anywhere else dealing with right of way.
It also assigns the city’s director of public safety to lead closures and calls for storing cleared items for 90 days.
Since last summer, Pittsburgh City Council and the Mayor’s Office have wrangled with methods of addressing homelessness, including efforts to open more emergency shelters, encourage accessory dwelling units and fund affordable housing initiatives.
Vitek said the CJP and ACLU were “pleased that the city administration has actively engaged with us. … They are balancing the concerns of the broader community with the concerns and needs of the people who are living unhoused.”
Vitek and others with CJP met with city officials on Thursday to discuss the draft policy. The meeting was the first of its kind in the seven months since the city, with county outreach staff standing by, closed a tent encampment along Stockton Avenue in East Allegheny, drawing criticism that the process endangered people camped there and provoking threats of litigation.
Vitek said the county has traditionally held the role of helping those in need, but is not at the table for this important discussion. “The county is conspicuously absent from this process. And city residents are county residents and so the county has a very large role to play in how our unhoused residents are treated.”
He also noted that with the county closing the shelter at the Smithfield United Church of Christ, it’s important to have a deliberate policy with county involvement.
People staying in that shelter were informed Friday evening that the last night for overnight accommodation will be Tuesday, June 20, with the end of its extended winter shelter service occurring on the following day.
An Allegheny County Department of Human Services spokesperson wrote in response to a PublicSource inquiry that the department’s “role is to provide services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. These services include homeless prevention, street outreach, and emergency shelters as well as bridge housing, rapid re-housing and supportive housing. We have and will continue to partner with local municipalities to deliver these services.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment Friday. The city previously declined comment, citing the fact that the policy was still a draft.
Homelessness pegged to ‘drug culture’
In May, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey asked some 70 social, healthcare and outreach workers for advice on what the city should do to address a rising population of people facing displacement. He said he wanted to remove the “silo mentality” in the region and wanted more participation between organizations and governmental entities.
During Gainey’s opening remarks at the meeting, he said the country has a “serious drug problem,” which, along with homelessness, needs to be addressed.
“We have an issue that has impacted us like never before,” Gainey said. “You got an issue where this drug culture is taking off.”
He said during the meeting that the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police stepped up their presence and “cleaned up Downtown” but that more efforts were needed.
“But the reality is, they can’t stop the drug culture,” Gainey said. “This drug culture is on a whole ‘nother level.”
The draft is the first indication that the administration is trying to come up with a standardized method of addressing encampments seven months after closure of the Stockton Avenue encampment.
At the time, the Stockton closure marked a break from how previous administrations addressed encampments. The city’s previous policies go back to a legal settlement reached in May 2003 after the ACLU sued Pittsburgh for clearing an encampment two years prior without providing notice to its residents, destroying their property in the process.
Under the settlement, the city agreed to provide a week of written notice before closing encampments and to store any unattended property for a year. The agreement expired in 2006, but its signature features — the timeline for providing notice and storing unattended property — were the backbone of the city’s approach until last fall.
The city stored Stockton encampment residents’ belongings for six months, half the time offered during prior encampment closures. At the time, CJP and the ACLU questioned if the items could be properly preserved after the “haphazard manner” in which they were collected. CJP also noted at the time that the city initially committed to providing encampment residents with 10 days of written notice about the closure and offering short-term hotel accommodations as an alternative housing option. However, this was scaled back to five days of notice.
After the Stockton closure, ACLU and CJP threatened legal action and they maintain that litigation is still an option.
The city appears to now be using some features of that original agreement in its new draft, including giving encampment residents seven days’ notice of any closures.
But Vitek said the draft needs to address finding a “constitutional solution to ensure there is adequate alternative shelter and a pathway to shelter before the city engages in locating and removing residents of an encampment.”
Courts have ruled that local governments are allowed to decommission encampments, but only if they provide residents with an adequate offer of alternative shelter; otherwise, a government can be found in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“They didn’t address it at all and that’s the main thing for us,” Vitek said. “We believe our clients are entitled to that and it’s missing from this policy at this point. They invited us to further discuss this point. They didn’t say they were open to the idea but they didn’t say no either.” He said CJP plans to research best practices in meeting the constitutional standard, present that information to the city and meet again soon.
Editor’s note (6/10/23): This story was updated to include information on the end of overnight services at the Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter and on talks between the city and the Community Justice Project.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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