No place to call home: Underpass evictions show the plight of the homeless

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Sometimes even a good, rational decision can challenge the conscience -- and that's the case with state and city officials telling about 30 homeless people last week to leave their encampment under highways on the North Shore.

How could such a directive not be disturbing? The nation's shared faith tradition compels such a reaction. Scripture contains various references to helping the poor and homeless and it doesn't take faith to make the humanitarian case that this most marginalized segment of society deserves compassion and help.

Yet the reality argued for action. The underpass encampments served as homes for some, but cesspools for crime and drugs for others. The fact that people were living in unsafe, unhealthy conditions offends the public conscience too.

The trouble with tough love is that it is tough -- and sometimes it is impractical. Rousting homeless people from one place does not guarantee that they won't set up camp somewhere else. Where will they go?

The good news is that Pittsburgh has had more success with tackling homelessness than other major cities, but the bad news is that it continues to be a very real problem.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of people counted as homeless on a single day in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County has dropped by 8 percent between 2007 and 2011. Additionally, the city has been lauded as having one of the lowest rates of homeless children in the country.

Obviously, more needs to be done, but what? Dr. Jim Withers, renowned for providing medical care to the homeless -- and who was relieved that the city and state had taken action to move the North Shore campers out of an unsafe environment -- suggests that homelessness could be tackled, in part, through "intelligently directed funding." This means investing responsibly in prevention measures and strengthening resources that are known to work, not necessarily increasing spending or expanding existing programs.

That deserves discussion. Until something more than evicting street people is done, consciences will continue to be disturbed.

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