South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

South Side residents concerned with number of vagrants in the area

 


The focus was on vagrancy at the June 20 meeting of the Zone 3 Public Safety Council.

 The officials in attendance included city Councilman Bruce Kraus, police Commander Karen Dixon, and Officer Christine Luffey.

 Mr. Kraus kicked-off the meeting by stating his focus that evening was on vagrancy, about which he had a meeting scheduled the next day.

 As for its history in the South Side, he said railroads have been passing through the area for years, with vagrants coming in over the rail lines. Over the years, the problems have increased, he said.

 As the rails shifted toward the river, the problem moved to the riverfront property.

 He said the problem is not homelessness, such as of a military veteran whose life has slipped away from him. Rather, it is “chronic deliberate vagrancy,” by young people with degrees and cell phones and iPads who travel the rails when the weather is warm, and survive by panhandling and/or selling drugs. He said they utilize social media to locate suitable areas.

 “It is a deliberate choice to live a life of vagrancy,” he said of so-called freegans, who choose a lifestyle of limited participation in the economy, including an absence of employment.

 The issue is “about permitting a chronic deliberate vagrancy to take hold and flourish,” he said.

 Over the years, they have become more and more emboldened, he said, as they began visiting businesses who find it hard to get rid of them if they do not put “no solicitation” signs on their property.

 Mr. Kraus said he wrote an amendment to the panhandling ordinance. While the right to solicit cannot be banned, “we can say how it can exist,” he said. For example, a person cannot panhandle within a 25-feet radius of a cash ATM machine.

 The ordinance speaks to aggressive panhandling, he said, with panhandling after dark considered aggressive. He added the words “pay parking stations” to the ordinance.

 Through its pay parking stations on East Carson St., the city creates a “captive audience,” he said, so the parking stations qualify for the 25-feet radius rule. Panhandlers used to congregate at these spots.

 Mr. Kraus said he is “at his wits end,” about this as “Carson St. has enough problems.” He walked from 18th St. to Giant Eagle recently and was panhandled five times.

 “You should not be accosted by strangers,” he said. Panhandlers are also a distraction to traffic, which could be dangerous.

 Grant Gittlen, manager of community and government affairs in the mayor’s office, said “We are not in a tower.” But a solution has to be constitutional, to which end the mayor’s office and the law department are working.

 Mr. Kraus said the police chief’s recommendation a year ago was to have a police officer on East Carson St. to walk a beat from 6 to 10 p.m. to show a presence. But it never occurred.

 He said he is not arguing for more officers, but for one who understands the complexity of East Carson St. and “what we’re up against.” The officer must be trained to deal with aggressive panhandling situations, he said.

 Mr. Kraus said he frequently sees a panhandler in his area who rides a bicycle, and can be found later shopping in Giant Eagle with a cart full of food items.

 “We have to have a better system in place,” he said.

 He said Giant Eagle is concerned about vagrancy on their grounds as they want their property protected.

 Officer Luffey said she is looking for two homeless men who were seen hitting and screaming at their pit bull. She can seize animals, she said.

 Commander Dixon said she would like to have some officers in the area to get to know the people involved in the panhandling. While she had daytime coverage until May, she will try to restart it with two officers on a beat.

 To a question of what the public can do to help, Mr. Kraus said owners must post “no trespassing” signs on property so the police can evict them.

 To a question about the consequences of panhandling, the commander said once someone ignores numerous citations the person can be arrested.

 Zone 3 public safety council President Ken Wolfe added the state changed panhandling to a citation, which is a lower category.

 An attendee said, in Florida, a newspaper did a story about panhandlers banning together and renting a house for $5,000 a month. When readers realized how well-off the panhandlers were, they stopped giving money. The attendee concluded the public needs to be made aware of the economic status of many panhandlers, and then stop giving.

 An attendee who works for “Operation Safety Net” said the public sees the panhandlers and assume they are homeless, but that is not always the case. Many have homes, and travel the country. His big concern is that it is hard to tell the difference between the two groups.

 But he understands the worry of residents. “You have a neighborhood to protect,” he said.

 He said there are more than 100 camps in the area for the truly homeless. In Allegheny County, for mental health/drug/alcohol issues, there is a nine-month waiting list to move off the street.

 For shelters, there is a two-week waiting list for men, and a few days for women.

 “These are really complex social issues happening out there,” he said.

 But for illegal activities, call the police, he said.

 

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