Pittsburgh rethinks food line for homeless

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The homeless have a place in Pittsburgh.

Zone 2 Cmdr. Eric Holmes made that promise Friday after officers, responding to a report of a Downtown disturbance Thursday evening, dispersed dozens of homeless people who had gathered to receive handouts of food from a charity.

"We've always had cordial relations with the police. We've never had any problem," said the Rev. Timothy J. Kruthaupt of the Church of the Resurrection in Clymer.

"Suddenly -- for the first time ever -- we get these harsh demands that, 'You've got to leave the streets immediately, or you're going to be arrested.' Totally out of the blue. I was very disappointed," he said.

There have always been charitable groups helping Pittsburgh's homeless. Decades ago, they gathered in the Strip District. For years, food was distributed in Market Square, a practice the city halted about five years ago.

Since then, various groups have been pulling up vans and setting up tables at a bus shelter along the Boulevard of the Allies, near Stanwix Street and St. Mary of Mercy Church. The location, on the sidewalk under a pedestrian overpass, provides some shelter from rain and snow.

On Thursday nights, 52 times a year, the food is distributed by 20 or more students from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. The Rev. Kruthaupt, who serves as chaplain at Indiana Hospital in Indiana County, helps.

"The people that come here and bring food and clothes and blankets and all that are just wonderful," said Dave Demain, 57, from Scott, who has been living on the streets of Pittsburgh off-and-on for more than six years. On cold winter nights, he finds refuge at a shelter on Smithfield Street. Otherwise, he sleeps under one of the city's bridges.

Everyone in the city's homeless community knows about the food, and as many as 100 people will gather each weeknight. Other charitable groups step up on other nights of the week.

"On Sundays, there's a guy who stops here in a van and brings us baloney sandwiches," Mr. Demain said.

When police rousted them Thursday night, the Rev. Kruthaupt took the food to West Park on the North Side.

"Only about 20 or 30 came over," he said. "None of the folks in wheelchairs, of course. And we had so much food, enough to feed maybe 150. The women made haluski and homemade spaghetti. [The police] could have talked with us, and we would have accommodated them with whatever was necessary. But as soon as we stepped out of our vans, we were told to leave."

Cmdr. Holmes said the officers were responding to a 911 call of an argument among the homeless, and one individual was intoxicated and disorderly. But contrary to what those involved might have thought, police are not going to stop the distribution of food.

"They're going to be allowed to operate there," he said. "And we're going to sit down next week and get everything worked out. My feeling on this is that everyone has a place and should be allowed Downtown. So we're going to work through any issues, so they're able to do the good work that they're doing.

"Once we talk to all the stakeholders, everyone involved, we'll determine if it's prudent that they stay there or move to another location. That's something to be worked out around the table."

A move would be welcome by some. In the past year, the former State Office Building and the old Verizon building -- which flank the current site -- have been converted into upscale apartment buildings, whose tenants must navigate around the homeless crowded onto the sidewalk each evening.

"There are situations here that need to be addressed, and I understand that," Mr. Demain said. "And with these new apartment buildings, the people here may be complaining. There are some fights once in a while, and there's a litter problem. ... Some of the people who live here, they want to walk through here, and we're all standing out here on the sidewalk and they have to go out on the street to get around us. It used to be there was nobody down here at night, so it wasn't a problem."

"I heard from other residents and a couple people working in the building that there was a petition being circulated asking the city to do something," said Jocelyn Bruzak, 25, who moved into the River Vue Apartments -- the old State Office Building -- in May.

"My window looks right down on that location," she said. "There's been a lot of police activity, firetrucks and ambulances. I guess I'm relieved to hear they're finally doing something.

"When I have friends over and they see it all, it's a pretty shocking sight. But I don't want them to stop it altogether. I just want them to find a more appropriate place for it."

Representatives of Millcraft Industries, which manages River Vue Apartments, and those with PMCProperty Group, which oversees 201 Stanwix Apartments -- the former Verizon building -- declined to comment.

The Rev. Kruthaupt said he wasn't aware of any incidents Thursday night, though there have been minor dust-ups in the past.

"If there was somebody that got rowdy or out of line, the folks there managed them," he said. "They didn't do anything to hurt them. They just said, 'Hey, this is a wonderful thing. Let's not ruin it. Either leave or be quiet.' And it's always worked just fine."


Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1456.


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