A single tent on the overpass above I-376 on Smithfield Street. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)
Legal advocates worry that a draft Pittsburgh policy on homeless camps doesn’t do enough to enshrine constitutional rights around cruel and unusual punishment at a time when the Smithfield Street shelter’s closure will leave more than 100 people seeking alternative arrangements.
As the closing of the Smithfield Street shelter nears, the City of Pittsburgh has drafted a policy on whether, when and how to close tent encampments, outlining factors like signs of drug use as justification for evacuating people from the area.
Two legal advocacy groups, one of which sued the city over its handling of encampment closures in the early 2000s, said the draft indicates that city administrators are thoughtfully considering the issue. But they worry that the policy doesn’t do enough to enshrine constitutional rights around cruel and unusual punishment at a time when the Smithfield Street shelter’s closure, set for June 21, will leave more than 100 people seeking alternative arrangements. They also called on Allegheny County to be involved in the process of finalizing the city’s policy.
“The county seems to be acting as if it doesn’t have a role to play in upholding the constitutional rights of its unhoused populations,” said Dan Vitek, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Community Justice Project. CJP and the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] are engaged with the city in talks on encampment policies. “As the city is trying to do what is necessary, the county is actively shutting down available beds.”
The draft policy was recently previewed by members of the county’s Homeless Advisory Board, whose members had various reactions to the document with one member, Chase Archer Evans, describing the draft as effectively criminalizing homelessness.
The policy calls for clearing or “decommissioning” encampments if, among other factors:
- They are located in a public space for which people can obtain a permit for exclusive use, like a city park or tennis court
- There is evidence of human trafficking, though it does not specify what would constitute such evidence
- There is a concern for health or safety, like human waste or trash in the open
- Tents are 10 feet or closer to roads, trails, sidewalks, bus shelters and anywhere else dealing with right of way.
It also assigns the city’s director of public safety to lead closures and calls for storing cleared items for 90 days.
Since last summer, Pittsburgh City Council and the Mayor’s Office have wrangled with methods of addressing homelessness, including efforts to open more emergency shelters, encourage accessory dwelling units and fund affordable housing initiatives.
Vitek said the CJP and ACLU were “pleased that the city administration has actively engaged with us. … They are balancing the concerns of the broader community with the concerns and needs of the people who are living unhoused.”