South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

Mental health frames discussion at Zone 3 meeting


The May 21 meeting of the Zone 3 Public Safety Council featured a discussion on mental health with therapist and social worker Julius Boatwright of Steel Smiling, the community-based social-service agency he founded which conducts free outreach.

Officials in attendance at Beulah Baptist Church in Beltzhoover included city Councilman Bruce Kraus, Zone 3 Commander Karen Dixon, and community relations Officer Christine Luffey.

“Everything is connected to mental health,” said Mr. Boatwright. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Mr. Boatwright said the trauma of losing his best friend to suicide three years ago, and his own struggles with depression, make him empathize with others’ suffering.

He started Steel Smiling to offer free therapy sessions, including in community members’ homes where he would sometimes sit for hours conducting peer-to-peer counseling as he does not set himself up as the “superior professional.”

“It gives people permission to be who they are,” he said.

In such settings people are also more open to sharing their issues.

For his part, he gains “deep, intimate insight,” he said.

Funding for Steel Smiling is from foundations and corporate support.

An attendee commented that the young parents of teens need to understand that everything goes back to mental health. But how can we get parents to talk about this, especially if they were raised with bad parents?

How do you both raise kids and work? the attendee asked.

Mr. Boatwright said Steel Smiling offers a year-long program consisting of training, support groups, and more. By the end, parents hold the support groups and run their own “non-traditional” mental health group.

“I’m fed up with the system,” he said.

He is about “education and awareness,” he said, as he serves as a referral source, and helps navigate residents through the training system to becoming mental health liaisons.

A national certification available to residents is “Mental Health First Aid,” via an eight-hour course that teaches how to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance abuse challenge.

The training helps one identify, understand and respond to signs of addictions and mental illnesses.

To a comment about youngsters away at college whose phone calls home can greatly agitate their parents, Mr. Boatwright said we need to consider the possibilities, as the youngster could be upset by events the parents are not aware of, like a car wreck involving a friend’s brother.

“There’s a reason they act that way, and it can be traumatizing if they don’t talk about it,” he said.

Officer Luffey relayed an incident in which a senior couple was living in a trashed, urine-filled home with 42 live cats and 50 dead cats, and with no running water.

She tried admitting the couple to a psychiatric hospital, but they were released a few hours later. The stated reason was they were not a danger to themselves or others.

Officer Luffey said she wanted to thank Mr. Boatwright for caring as she has seen “a lot of mental illness fall through the cracks.”

The couple is still living in a condemned house.

“The cycle is just continuing,” she said as the cats in the home keep reproducing.

Officer Luffey said any help people get who fall through the cracks helps us all.

To a question – in light of the recent school shootings -- if the Pittsburgh Public Schools district holds surprise inspections, he was told they only occur if there is a tip that someone has something in their locker.

But regular inspections would be a school board decision.

The meeting began with Mr. Kraus announcing the opening of the new spray park in Arlington – where the pool used to be – on May 26.

“They tried for years to get this up and running,” he said. Mayor William Peduto was scheduled to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.

He also said he would be meeting shortly with the South Side Chamber of Commerce about the vagrancy problem as he and others are committed to keeping the riverfront safe this summer.

Mr. Kraus also reported he and nighttime economy coordinator Allison Harnden were invited to Columbus, Ohio, the following week to present at an international conference regarding emerging trends and collaborations: innovative approaches to hot topics, current events and environmental factors in college communities.

The presentation and group discussion will focus on: socializing and alcohol in college; impacts on the college/university from off-campus housing; impacts on the community from disorder and crime; unique challenges in communities with large student populations and active nightlife; party busses; off-campus housing; and sexual assault.

Mr. Kraus said he and Ms. Harnden will address “public safety and policing in nightlife districts: alliances between campus, college police, nightlife venues and party planners.

“We are starting to serve as a model on all of this for other cities,” he said. He also enjoys picking up tips on these issues from other cities’ representatives.

Next, group vice-president Liz Style said May featured numerous national public safety days: May 4, International Firefighters’ Day; May 13-19, National Police Week; and May 20-26, National EMS Week.

Ms. Style reported that on May 4 public safety council representatives visited firefighters in the zone to thank them for their service. The same occurred during National Police and EMS weeks.

She encouraged attendees to stop by those sites, even at this late date, and thank the personnel for their service.

Ms. Style also reported she and others are working with Jeff Brown, community outreach specialist in the city’s Dept. of Public Safety, on what materials to make available to block watches. A website is also being planned.

In announcements, Mr. Kraus said the Public Works’ 4th Division facility on Bausman St. in Knoxville which became “uninhabitable” as the building was toxic and unhealthy, would be demolished starting that week.

A confirmed rebuilding site will be named by July.

The next Zone 3 meeting will be on June 18 at a site to be determined. The meetings are hitting the road, with the tentative sites for future meetings being Knoxville and Carrick.


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