Pittsburgh homeless people given a reprieve

For two homeless men and their girlfriends, the passing of Monday's deadline to vacate their North Shore encampment had widely different meanings.

One man, Dennis Burns, enlisted the assistance of a caseworker who helped him move many of his belongings -- including a tent, small generator and the TV it powered -- into storage and hopes to soon move into more permanent housing.

The other man wandered the streets around the small tent city with most of his possessions in a shopping cart he stole from Giant Eagle, his girlfriend a few paces behind, wondering where they would sleep Monday night.

"Nobody else is going to help us," he said as he and his girlfriend climbed into a white SUV driven by Melody Miller, a case manager for Operation Safety Net, an organization that provides health care and other services for the homeless as part of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

Ms. Miller offered to help him find somewhere -- likely outside -- to sleep.

The migration of many within the North Shore homeless encampment below Interstate 579 and near East Ohio Street came after state and city officials announced last Tuesday the residents had five days to clear their belongings so PennDOT could put up fencing to keep the homeless out.

But on Monday, with the eviction deadline hanging in the air, there was no sign of PennDOT or the Department of Public Works.

When asked why state or city officials did not attempt to clear out the site as announced last week, Angelo Pampena, the PennDOT manager for Allegheny County, said the state is not yet ready to install the fences.

"The city was trying to just comply and get things going quicker than what needed to be done at that point. We just never really had the plan," he said, noting the fences should be up within two weeks. Mr. Pampena stressed that PennDOT has no intention of targeting the homeless and their primary concern is public safety. "PennDOT's not the bad guy here," he said.

Although the rationale to fence the camp is tied to public safety concerns, PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan said the spark for the decision was motorist complaints about the sight of the camp.

Anne Kainaroi doesn't dispute that the homeless people are living on PennDOT's property, but for her, that's beside the point. "It's a fair argument to say 'That's not their property,' " said Ms. Kainaroi, the homeless outreach supervisor for Community Human Services. "But where is their property? Where can they go?"

Ms. Kainaroi, who visited the camp three times this week to help members of the small tent city secure temporary housing assistance, wasn't the only social service worker to make the argument that the public perception of the homeless often wrongly centers around violence, drug use and fear.

"I've been continually humbled by the stories of people who live on the streets -- and yet they're so often stigmatized and blamed for where they're at," Jim Withers, the founder of Operation Safety Net, said.

When asked the most obvious and yet often the most vexing question, "Why are some people homeless?" Dr. Withers said: "I've been asked that question for 21 years and I still don't have a really good answer. You just have to ask each one."

mobilehome - neigh_city

Alex Zimmerman: azimmerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman. First Published July 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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