Authorities give North Shore homeless 5 days to disperse

PennDOT says underpasses must be cleared for safety reasons

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On any given summer night, about 30 people sleep in one of several camps below a labyrinthine intersection of highways on the North Shore.

Some of them call it home.

But on Tuesday, state and city officials told the population of homeless people who live there they have five days to clear out their belongings and find a new place to live.

"There's been a problem with homeless encampments around the city," said Rob Kaczorowski, the city's public works director, citing health and safety concerns about groups living in close quarters without proper sanitation.

He said the city clears about 12 camps each year and rarely meets much resistance.

The request to fence off this particular homeless camp came from the state, which owns the property underneath the overpasses and plans to set up fences to keep people out, according to PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan. He said increased instances of fires under the bridges and construction are reasons to clear the scattered camps around Anderson Street and under Interstate 579.

About a dozen tents, a charcoal grill and scattered tables and chairs mark the living spaces.

A handful of no-trespassing signs adorn the massive concrete supports that protrude through the small tent city, but the police almost never give anyone a hard time, according to several people who live there.

Tuesday's announcement generated mixed reactions from homeless advocates, social service workers and residents of the encampment.

Several homeless people were upset they weren't given a chance to respond to the announcement and said there wasn't a plan to move them somewhere else.

Jim Withers, who practices "street medicine" and has worked with homeless populations in Pittsburgh for decades, said the decision to close the camp doesn't bother him.

"I'm kind of relieved something is being done," Dr. Withers said. "Frankly, that camp is one of the largest I've seen in 21 years, and we're often afraid to go into it. We've seen people with guns, obvious drug deals going on."

In 1992, he founded Operation Safety Net, an organization that provides health care to those without shelter as part of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

He chalks the increase he's seen in the homeless population up to the sagging economy.

Veterans, people with mental health issues and those who have experienced domestic violence are all more vulnerable in tough economic times, Dr. Withers said.

Dennis Burns, a 50-year-old resident of the encampment who has been homeless for three years, acknowledged there are pockets of the tent city plagued by litter and crime.

But he said the people who cause problems are in the minority and those who live in the tents surrounding him are decent people who don't deserve to be kicked out.

"We're doing the best we can do," Mr. Burns said. "We're not belligerent people."

A couple of orange cones marked "Burns" demarcate several square feet in front of his tents, which has carpeting, chairs, a small TV and toaster -- all powered by a little generator that sits in the shoulder of the HOV onramp near Anderson Street.

The basic elements of Mr. Burns' life -- eating, sleeping, talking with his friends -- are just a few feet from the near constant stream of cars that go zooming by.

"I'm not proud to be sitting here, but I will survive," he said.

Increased development in the North Shore area has prompted citizen complaints and pressure to do something about the sight of the encampment, according Breanna Jay, coordinator for Operation Save-A-Life, an outreach program targeted at homeless populations in the North Side and South Side.

"It's always been a safe spot for people," Ms. Jay said. "It was just an issue of nobody really wanted them there, but no one wanted to take responsibility."

Ms. Jay is sympathetic to PennDOT's rationale for clearing the camp but worries that the North Side homeless population will disperse and become harder to serve.

"I can understand their concern. It's not like it's public property. The bigger issue is: How is it that we can't figure out a better way to get people rapidly off the street?"

mobilehome - neigh_city

Alex Zimmerman:, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman. First Published July 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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