Relocating food line would be wrong move
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Every evening a small army of the dispossessed gather under a pedestrian overpass on the Boulevard of the Allies awaiting the arrival of a food caravan from a local ministry.
As the evening light wanes and the crowd swells, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone visibly happy about his circumstances.
On the way to my bus stop at the end of the day, I pass by men and a few women who make a point of getting there early. Most will return a "Good evening" directed their way, although eye contact is rare. It isn't clear whether shame over the hand life has dealt them or some other demon compels most to look away.
Ironically, the 100 or so folks who gather on the boulevard every evening represent a version of a racially mixed Pittsburgh that is difficult to match outside the beer line at a Steelers game.
For a few hours every night, the sidewalk between the former State Office Building and the former Verizon Building is occupied by people who refuse to let the elements get in the way of what could be their only decent meal of the day.
The once-grim State Office Building with its flickering lights and bad air has been overhauled and rechristened River Vue. Like the former Verizon Building on the opposite end of the block, it has been upgraded to house those with the financial resources to live in Downtown luxury apartments.
A few of those newcomers look down from their windows high above the street and wonder when the police will do something about the unfortunate clumps of humanity who gather nightly to obscure their view of ideal urban living. Who wants to maneuver around the homeless while walking their Pomeranian?
As the line of needy individuals forms, there's nothing like the smug conviviality that wafts through a crowd waiting outside an Apple store on those days when the new iPhone drops. Voices sometimes rise in anger under the overpass, spurred by a despair that is too deep for anyone who hasn't walked in those shoes to fully understand.
Last Thursday, voices carried a little further than usual. Before the meals arrived, someone called 911 about a disturbance. When the volunteers from the Church of the Resurrection arrived with the food, they were brusquely ordered away by officers eager to restore order and decorum.
The homeless people were unceremoniously dispersed and sent back into the night hungry and without a clue that the meals they sought would be distributed on the North Side. It was not Pittsburgh's finest hour.
To his credit, Zone 2 police Cmdr. Eric Holmes is eager to avoid a repeat of last week's misunderstanding between the police and the ministries that serve the homeless. Cmdr. Holmes said all the right things about Downtown belonging to everyone, even while acknowledging that it might be necessary to move the location of the ministry to better accommodate everyone's concerns.
It wouldn't be the first time the ministry was moved. For years, the homeless gathered in long lines in the Strip District waiting for their daily bread. The ministry eventually migrated to Market Square. Before it could set down roots, the restaurants complained.
The city cracked down, forcing the homeless ministry to relocate to St. Mary of Mercy Church on Stanwix Street, where it would not directly compete with the restaurants or detract from the ambiance the city was trying to create in Market Square.
The homeless ministry eventually moved one block to its current location under the overpass. There have been incidents over the years, including fights, but the hungry always managed to be fed. With the arrival of condos and luxury apartments on both sides, complaints about the proximity of the homeless for a few hours in the evening are inevitable.
In the absence of meaningful and substantive help for the homeless -- including low-cost housing, job training and mental/substance abuse counseling -- it seems that the least we can do as a community is facilitate one meal a day in a public space without subjecting the homeless to government hassle.
The cost of compassion in this case is borne entirely by volunteers from religious groups and organizations determined to live out the demands of their faith by ministering to those the rest of society have given up on. Other than the occasional police presence, I would be shocked if Pittsburgh kicked in a single shekel to this ministry, but I'd be open to being corrected on this point.
Let them eat cake? How about letting the poor and the homeless eat, period!
First Published October 2, 2012 12:00 am