Two legal advocacy groups are urging Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials to develop policies for respectfully decommissioning homeless encampments, citing December’s closure of one along Stockton Avenue as a potential violation of the constitutional rights of people who lived there.
“The government can do a lot, but they have to do it in a constitutional way,” said Vic Walczak, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s legal director. “Unceremoniously taking and destroying people’s private property without adequate notice is clearly unconstitutional.”
In a letter sent to the city and county on Jan. 19, the Community Justice Project and the ACLU argued that the closure of the Stockton Avenue encampment was a “fiasco” because the governments did not provide the residents with sufficient notice of the closure, alternative housing options or storage for the items they left behind. They’re requesting that city Solicitor Krysia Kubiak, county Solicitor George Janocsko and other officials meet with them to establish criteria for determining when to close encampments and protocols for executing closures.
In an email to PublicSource, county spokesperson Amie Downs said the city was solely responsible for the Stockton Avenue encampment closure. “The county had outreach staff available to connect any individuals there who hadn’t already been connected to housing or other services, but that was our only presence there,” she added.
City officials, with support from county human services workers, closed the Stockton Avenue encampment after providing nearly five days of written notice to its residents. Estimates of the number of people living there at the time range from a dozen people to 45. On the day of the Dec. 14 closure, officials were joined by police and work crews who used front-loaders to clear items from the encampment — at one point inadvertently scooping up a woman in a tent who then fell several feet to the ground.
The Stockton Avenue encampment closure, and an accompanying clearance of tents along the nearby Three Rivers Heritage Trail, marks the second since Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration took office last January. Lisa Frank, the city’s chief operating and administrative officer, said the city’s goal during the closure process was to make the transition to housing “comfortable and delightful” for people.
“There were some people [from the Stockton Avenue encampment] who moved into SROs and were taking selfies and sending them to their family and said, ‘I got in and this is a great place,’” Frank said. “We want it to be like that.”
The city is storing the belongings that encampment residents left behind for six months, half the time offered during prior encampment closures. CJP and the ACLU question if the items can be properly preserved after the “haphazard manner” in which they were collected.
CJP and the ACLU are representing clients who were residents of the encampment, but were unable to make them available for comment. PublicSource has not yet been able to reach other former residents of the encampment.
The city and county split responsibilities for closing encampments within Pittsburgh, with the city initiating decisions to close encampments, ordering people to relocate and storing their property. The city and county jointly helped residents of the Stockton Avenue encampment move into single-resident occupancy [SRO] units and shelter beds at Second Avenue Commons, the county’s low-barrier shelter that opened on Nov. 22.
CJP and the ACLU said they hope the city and county will consider revising their decommissioning strategy in the future to provide encampment residents with more notice of closures, more expansive housing alternatives and longer storage options for items left behind.
“These are well-meaning folks, and we just need to get together and come up with some rules of engagement that respect the constitutional rights, but still allow the government to perform their functions,” Walczak said.
Litigation is a last resort, he added.
“If they pull something like this again,” Walczak warned, “there will likely be litigation.”
Rising homelessness, new plans
Allegheny County’s homelessness services include programs for street outreach, emergency shelters, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. More than 9,000 people used at least one of these services in 2022, a 16% increase from 2021.
Since the summer, Pittsburgh City Council and the Mayor’s Office have evaluated strategies for addressing homelessness, including everything from opening more emergency shelters to building accessory dwelling units. Most recently, City Council preliminarily approved a bill on Jan. 18 directing the Gainey administration to provide for policies and programs that will address the city’s lack of affordable housing.
The Stockton Avenue encampment closure marks a stark departure from the two-decade-old city procedures for addressing encampments — a change that’s been on the drawing board since the summer.
The city’s previous policies for closing encampments stem 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.
Walczak, who litigated the 2003 agreement, said previous mayoral administrations respected the agreement’s tenets, even though it had expired.
“We never had to go back to court and haven’t been in court since then,” Walczak said. “That’s largely because all of the mayoral administrations since that time — until now — agreed to follow those guidelines and did follow them.”
Frank said the Gainey administration’s approach to closing encampments isn’t built upon the 2003 agreement, but rather it “grew out of a concern for people’s well-being and an opportunity to do something about that.”
Last September, city and county officials shared their joint intentions to close at least five encampments throughout the fall with the county’s Homeless Advisory Board, which is set up to advise the county, city and other municipalities on their programs and efforts to prevent homelessness.
Since then, the board has not held any meetings regarding the “decommissioning process” nor has the board held a post-operation review of the Stockton Avenue encampment closure.
The city does not have imminent plans for closing additional encampments.
“Where would we put people? We’re full,” Frank said.
However, CJP and the ACLU fear that more closures could be on the horizon.
“In light of rumors that the City intends to close additional encampments, we respectfully request a meeting with relevant City and County officials, and other necessary stakeholders, to discuss adoption of policies and procedures that will allow the government to fulfill its responsibilities, but does so in a way that protects our clients’ dignity and constitutional rights,” the organizations wrote in their letter.
What’s a credible offer of housing?
Courts have long ruled that local governments are allowed to decommission encampments, but only if they provide residents with an adequate offer of alternative shelter. Otherwise, they’re violating the residents’ constitutional right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.
Frank said it’s typically difficult to close an encampment because the city isn’t always prepared to provide all residents with credible offers of housing. “The key to it all is the credible offer, the availability of the housing supply,” Frank said.
“In the county, we might get one or two beds somewhere opened,” Frank added. “Second Avenue Commons gave us 43 SROs and 90 congregate beds, so you could start to think about, almost, priorities.”
On Nov. 10, just before the opening of Second Avenue Commons, the city closed an encampment along the segment of the Allegheny River Trail parallel to the 10th Street Bypass. City officials acted quickly to close that encampment after outreach workers from the Department of Public Works reported they no longer felt safe stopping by to clean up trash and check on residents, according to Frank.
During this first closure, city officials provided seven days of written notice before the evacuation, offered to store unattended items for a year and provided short-term hotel stays to encampment residents as their offer of alternative housing.
Although this largely mirrors the guidelines established under the 2003 agreement, Frank said the 19-year-old protocols did not set the tone of the city’s approach.
Frank said offering short-term hotel stays was a way of biding time until Second Avenue Commons opened about two weeks later. The decision to store items for a year was a byproduct of the city reusing a sign from a closure in the “distant past,” Frank said.
Threats and baseball bats
Second Avenue Commons gave the city and county an opportunity to match dozens of people experiencing homelessness to, at least, temporary housing options.
Frank said city outreach workers began speaking with residents of the Stockton Avenue encampment about the possibility of moving into Second Avenue Commons in late September, just after the facility’s dedication ceremony.
Meanwhile, community concerns with the encampment and other perceived disorder in the surrounding neighborhood mounted, emerging in meetings with public officials, according to Barbara Burns, a former city councilwoman who runs the Sweet Time General Store on East Ohio Street in nearby East Allegheny.
“The tents were a visual metaphor for the problem” of populations involved with hazardous behaviors, said Burns. “And we seem to have not even a police response that we can count on until it gets so bad and so visual that you feel like you’re embattled. … We can’t coexist with this because it’s not healthy, and I’m entitled to feel safe and healthy in my own community, in my own house. Everybody’s entitled to that. Everybody, including them.”
The plans to decommission the Stockton Avenue encampment didn’t solidify until later that fall, after the city received reports of threats made against encampment residents.
Situated next to the elevated arm of Interstate 279 just before it curves to bisect East Allegheny, the Stockton Avenue encampment sat on a strip of grass within walking distance from the Hampton Battery section of Allegheny Commons East Park. This portion of the park is known as an open-air drug market.
“The folks who were, let’s say, doing business in the park had gone down to Stockton and threatened to remove people themselves with baseball bats, and we had to do a little intervention around that,” Frank said.
The encampment closure quickly became a “chaotic” process, said Jackie Perlow, an attorney with Community Justice Project. CJP first heard whispers about the plan to close the encampment on Dec. 6, and sent a letter on the morning of Dec. 9 — hours before written notice of the closure was officially posted — asking Gainey, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other officials to halt their plans.
Perlow said, in discussions with CJP, the city initially committed to providing encampment residents with 10 days of written notice and offering short-term hotel accommodations as an alternative housing option. However, this was scaled back to five days of notice and an offer of only shelter accommodations.
“Why was it acceptable to have such a chaotic process that could have been resolved with more time and thinking and planning?” Perlow added.
‘You’re taking away their freedom’
When city and county officials began speaking to residents of the Stockton Avenue encampment about relocating amid the closure, the only offer of alternative housing they provided was staying at Second Avenue Commons — either in a SRO room or in a low-barrier shelter bed, according to Frank.
Chase Archer Evans, a member of the county’s Homeless Advisory Board who’s been experiencing homelessness for more than 15 years, said the city and county’s decision to present Second Avenue Commons as the only housing option for Stockton encampment residents diminished their autonomy.
“It doesn’t matter if it was a mansion,” Evans said. “If you require them to go there or you’re binding them to that location, you’re taking away their freedom. Period.”
A handful of the encampment’s residents chose to continue living outdoors, rather than heading to Second Avenue Commons, said Frank, adding that such decisions likely stem from past traumatic experiences at shelters or similar settings. “When people choose that, it’s because they had a terrible experience at a shelter,” she added.
Dave Lettrich, the executive director of the Bridge Outreach group serving people without housing across Pittsburgh, said offering stays at Second Avenue Commons doesn’t necessarily constitute a credible housing offer if it’s not a person’s preference to stay at a shelter.
Second Avenue Commons’ opening, he said, “became an excuse to force people into a shelter space that weren’t comfortable in a shelter space.”
“If people are not comfortable in a shelter space, there are very good reasons for that, there are very good psychological and other reasons for that,” he said, noting things like shared bathrooms in SROs or a social anxiety diagnosis can make choosing to live in a space like Second Avenue Commons less desirable for some.
Second Avenue Commons reached maximum capacity within days of opening, so the city and county set aside beds and SRO rooms for the Stockton encampment residents to guarantee they’d have spots. This resulted in other people waiting at Second Avenue Commons’ doors being turned away and directed toward other shelters, including the low-barrier winter shelter at Smithfield Unified Church of Christ, according to Frank and Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.
Walczak questions if Second Avenue Commons constituted a credible alternative housing option if it only had space for the Stockton residents because beds were specially reserved.
“[The city and county] said, ‘We’re going to combat these encampments by offering beds,’” Evans said. “And all that means is, ‘We’re going to offer beds that aren’t there, that are full, and we’re going to continue to criminalize you as long as we offer that bed.’”
New rules of engagement
Both the city and county have responsibilities when encampments are closed because, while city land is involved, many resources to address homelessness — like shelters — fall under the county’s purview.
Although DHS has helped shape the strategy employed to decommission encampments, Dalton said the city initiates a closure. “We’ve brainstormed with the city about how and looked at other best practices with them,” she added. “But when it comes to any kind of operations … our job is outreach engagement and connection to housing.”
Dalton said there are no plans to close any encampments in the near future, but that the county is continuing to work with Pittsburgh and other municipalities in assessing its strategy for relocating both individuals and groups from living outdoors to indoors.
Lettrich said the county already has very efficient and effective supportive housing services in place that are made less efficient when people outside the system trip the the wire to force encampment closures.
“When the city steps in and makes moves, all that does is create more challenges for the system, the incredibly effective system that’s already out there,” he said. He instead encourages the city to provide on-site waste collection for camps and adapt laws to keep sites hygienic, safe and less of an eyesore. From there, outreach workers can meet people where they are and get them into the housing system.
“The only reason that anyone’s on the street for more than a year in Pittsburgh is due to unique circumstances or human will,” he said.
Frank said that the city will continue to use the basic principles of the Stockton Avenue encampment closure — sharing available resources with residents to help them move indoors — during any future closures. But with few beds available across city shelters, Frank said the city is focusing on turning Second Avenue Commons into a stepping stone to finding more permanent housing.
“What we want to do is have a place where people go to get their bearings,” Frank said, “and then we want on the other side of Second Avenue to be, ‘Boom, I can go here, and I can go here, and I can go here, and I can go here.’”
Evans added that, compared to other cities nationwide, Pittsburgh is doing a great job of reducing homelessness.
“We actually have an ability to take care of the problem,” Evans said. “But if we don’t accept the actual solutions, it’s going to keep getting worse and worse.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments received after its initial publication.
Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ameliawinger.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with PublicSource who can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @stephstrasburg.
This story was fact-checked by Betul Tuncer.
Reporting on homelessness requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm, avoiding retraumatization and respecting privacy and agency.
In preparation for this story, PublicSource journalists reviewed resources including Street Sense Media’s guide to reporting on homelessness. To sum up Street Sense Media’s guidelines, we sought to give people living in shelters or tents the same respect we would give sources who live in stable housing.
While reporting this story, PublicSource took respectful measures to identify and make contact with people who lived at the Stockton encampment. Those measures included communication with advocates and social workers and conversations with people who are experiencing homelessness.
Those efforts did not result, by publication date, in receipt of comment from former residents of the Stockton Avenue encampment. Those efforts continue.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.