Sharing Our Communities With Our Homeless Neighbors

Where and how we provide basic support to our homeless neighbor is a NIMBY battle dating back to the day of separate entrances and so forth. And the recent failure on the part of City residents to embrace their most vulnerable neighbors reflects the fact that the private safety net is a total illusion and a near total failure.

Let’s back up. For a long time, local private groups – churches, students, good people – showed up with freshly prepared food to share with their neighbors. Tony Norman describes it well:

Photo Credit Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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.

Recently, the City police dispersed the crowd and accusations are rampant that the upscale neighbors paying rent for the  renovated buildings are behind the policy change. Because it was sudden, without warning and literally left people hungry if they did not know or could not travel to the Northside location. How very sad for Pittsburgh’s finest and certainly a shameful reflection for there is a group of homeless providers and a simple phone call to those groups could have identified the real issues and at the very least provided ample warning.

This is not a unique situation either in terms of Pittsburgh’s lack of response to the needs of our homeless community or to the larger issue of controlling how we feed hungry people.

Philadelphia banned feeding programs too. Well respected advocate for the homeless Mark Horvath offers reasons that this could be helpful: the lack of health department oversight makes food safety an issue; lack of coordination reduces the impact of resources that could fund more beds; meeting people where they are (in the park for example) provides no incentive for them to connect with brick and mortar organizations that do have other types of programs and finally the fact that while 9 churches are feeding one group of homeless people, most hungry people don’t live in parks and no one brings food to their homes.

These are points worth consideration  – I suspect Mark is making lemonade out of lemons to be honest – but this all adds to a lack of accountability. And a lack of stewardship by the feeding program organizers. I admit when I first read about Pittsburgh, the situation on Skid Row came to mind. There are homeless organizations within minutes of this location – what is the interaction?

I’m of the belief that its best to ask the experts how to invest my meager resources to have an impact. And that includes asking people what they would like to eat and talking with the providers – many formerly homeless – about the programs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going into the streets to build relationships and bring an offer of hospitality. It certainly beats those who want to hide the homeless. Its easy enough to hide the hungry working poor.

I wish our questions were different. I wish the restauranteurs in Market Square had pushed the City and County to find homes for people living outside of their door steps. I wish people on the Northside would stop complaining about the large number of homeless organizations and figure out how to find homes for the people. I wish I wasn’t keenly aware that some of the folks on the receiving end are LGBTQ youth who seem to bounce between the GLCC, the Arts School and homeless programs.

I wish the complaint was about the offense of having to be exposed to the behavior and presence of homeless persons, but an objection forcing people to line up at night for a be.

The City can right this wrong by working more closely with the homeless providers – including the GLCC – identify solutions. The providers can reach out to the rogue groups of spaghetti servers. And we can all admit that the role of our public services is to coordinate and address these issues.

This isn’t about fault – its about planning, teaching people to fish – however you like your metaphor.  Sadly a venerable institution was on the receiving end of harassment and folks believe it was the fancy new apartment folks moving in across the street. From a club. ALCOA was removing unsightly unofficial residential spots to tidy up PNC parking lots. Everyone knows someone who “chooses” to be homeless, refuses to stop using drugs and acts suspicious. Again, wrong questions.

The homeless people are going to get off of your street when you use your privilege to provide more places for them to live. Maybe you support a faith based effort that does require prayer? Fine. Maybe you fall on the opposite en o the spectrm. Great.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing a sandwich. But we have to find ways to share our community, our neighborhoods.




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