Sep 01, 2023
New policy outlines reasons Pittsburgh will clear tent encampments
The mayor’s office finalized a policy for clearing tent encampments earlier this month, formalizing Pittsburgh’s stance on homeless camps after the rules of engagement were muddied when city workers
The mayor’s office finalized a policy for clearing tent encampments earlier this month, formalizing Pittsburgh’s stance on homeless camps after the rules of engagement were muddied when city workers cleared out a North Side tent cluster in December.
The policy replaces an unwritten rule dating back to former Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration that stemmed from a 2003 lawsuit settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU].
The new policy comes after months of planning and occasionally soliciting advice from the ACLU, the Community Justice Project [CJP], members of Allegheny County’s Homeless Advisory Board and outreach groups. It outlines when the city may deem it necessary to remove people and their belongings from an area.
The policy calls for clearing or “decommissioning” encampments if, among other factors:
Shelter StakesAs homelessness surged, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh scrambled, and those without shelter tried to adapt. Explore our investigative series.
In June, the city’s draft of the policy was leaked to PublicSource. The final version removes some justifications for clearing camps, including evidence of human trafficking and evidence of drug use. Human trafficking was removed after the city’s public safety team determined trafficking was not a significant issue within encampments, City Solicitor Krysia Kubiak said.
People at sites being targeted by the city for clearance will be given at least seven days’ notice before they have to pack up, except in emergencies.
The final version also changed the justification for clearing tents on private property. The draft cited that private property owned by a government entity or authority could be cleared, and in the final version it was broadened to private property overall.
Read the full policy here.
Mayor Ed Gainey’s office made Kubiak available and she noted in an interview that the policy will continue to change based on the encampment situation.
Read more: Smithfield homeless shelter in downtown Pittsburgh exposed frayed safety net and tested county compassion
She said that the city isn’t looking to clear encampments arbitrarily.
“The goal of this policy is to promote and protect the safety of our unhoused and residents,” Kubiak said. “The city would love it if none of the encampments had the issues that we outlined here.”
The 2003 settlement with the ACLU resulted in the city acknowledging a structured decommissioning process by agreeing to provide a week of written notice before closing encampments and to store any unattended property for a year. While the agreement expired in 2006, its signature features — the timeline for providing notice and storing unattended property — were the backbone of the city’s approach until last fall.
The draft policy is drawing mixed reviews from two legal organizations that approached the city after the North Side camp clearance.
“CJP and the ACLU of Pennsylvania applaud the Gainey administration’s willingness to help people living unhoused and outside, but we don’t believe it goes far enough,” Dan Vitek, an attorney with CJP, said in a written response to a PublicSource inquiry.
“While the city’s new policy on clearing homeless encampments brings some clarity to the process, it doesn’t fully protect the rights of unhoused people because it only offers a vague promise ‘to discuss and offer’ alternative housing to the people being displaced.”
Vitek also called on the county to take a more active role in this process because the county’s Department of Human Services [ACDHS] is responsible for taking care of people in vulnerable situations.
An ACDHS spokesperson wrote in response to a PublicSource inquiry, “We agree with all parties that adequate alternative housing must be offered to people who are impacted by locations that the city has determined to be unsafe or in violation of their encampment policy. … DHS’s role is to provide this housing” along with street outreach, emergency shelter, bridge housing, rapid re-housing and supportive housing.
The ACLU and the CJP said they were not aware of the policy going into effect until they were notified by PublicSource.
Kubiak said she had not known that the organizations had not been informed. “We did meet with them once or twice and received comments,” she said.
Kubiak said a city social work unit was informed of the new policy.
“We did spend a lot of time internally with the [Office of Community Health and Services] team,” she said.
Read more: Pittsburgh’s housing authority says voucher program building firmer foundation
OCHS is meant to help respond to situations that don’t require law enforcement by using public health and social work professionals alongside first responders.
Kubiak said outreach workers told her and others in the mayor’s office that the new policy gives clear guidelines and helps them deal with the unhoused population while providing people in the encampments a sense of security.
She explained that the guidelines provide a blueprint on dealing with encampments and help to communicate to the public why certain tents won’t or will be removed. For example, sex work is not a precursor to getting evicted but evidence of the sale of drugs would make an encampment a possible target for removal.
She said the city hasn’t had to clear any encampments yet. If and when they do clear encampments, people who don’t want to move to shelters will have the option to move to another encampment, according to Kubiak.
As of Aug. 28, the county reported that there were 692 people staying in emergency shelters.
ACLU and CJP attorneys are concerned that constitutional rights must be protected when moving people out of a sleeping arrangement.
Courts have ruled that local governments are allowed to decommission encampments, but must provide residents with an adequate offer of alternative shelter or risk running afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“The city and county governments together must guarantee that it will offer adequate alternative shelter to people it intends to displace,” Vitek said. “This requires available, long-term shelter beds or other safe outdoor space and assistance relocating. If an encampment needs to be closed in an emergency, short-term hotel stays should be provided while plans for longer-term shelter are worked out.”
Read more: Advocates for Pittsburgh’s unhoused and business leaders met and agreed on one thing: Bathrooms
Kubiak said the city’s role in providing shelter is limited, as the county gets federal funding for homeless services and shelters.
“We’re on the front edge because of the public safety aspect but we don’t own shelters,” she said. “The county has been wonderful to us.”
Kubiak said that the county’s newest shelter, Second Avenue Commons, “has been a great step forward.”
“One of our hopes for this policy is that it will help all of our partners in helping residents of dangerous encampments find a better place to sleep either by making their encampment safe or finding a safer location,” Kubiak said.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
This story was fact-checked by Erin Yudt.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.
Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even... More by Eric JankiewiczShelter StakesRead more: Read more:Read more: However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially.