South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Council seeks solution to rail riders on East Carson

Concerted effort needed to clean up area known as 'The Wall'


Last updated 5/13/2021 at 10:32am

City officials and neighborhood leaders are concerned about the increase in graffiti and vandalism in the area between 17th and 18th streets known as "the wall." Since the area next to the wall is private property, the police will be moving people along to avoid a trespassing charge.

The main topics of discussion at the April Zoom meeting of the Zone 3 Public Safety Council included a shooting in Carrick and "freegans" on Carson Street.

Zone 3 Commander John Fisher discussed an April 26 shooting in Carrick as part of the crime trends report.

He said the shooting took place in the 1900 block of Brownsville Road where a male was shot in the hip. As of the time of the meeting, the victim was uncooperative with the police and refused to identify or acknowledge who shot him.

After the incident, the commander walked the 1800, 1900 and 2000 blocks of Brownsville Road and talked with some of the residents and businesspeople. He said while they were troubled about the shooting, they weren't really concerned since it was the first of this type of incident they have had there in some time.

He noted the residents he talked to were generally pleased with the police service. Anytime they have called 911 they have received a quick response.

"This case is open, but unless we get some cooperation from the victim, it may remain open," Commander Fisher said.

Patrols have been increased in the area and officers are now doing park and walks. The officers are now also calling in so there is documentation of when and where they have been in the neighborhood.

In a submitted question, Commander Fisher was asked how often police patrolled neighborhood parks.

In all of Zone 3, the officers are instructed to call out a "park check" 24-hours a day, he explained. The officers call in when beginning and ending their park checks, noting any issues. If there's any type of emergency the officers will radio immediately.

"Park checks are done every day of the week, around the clock," he added.

The commander segued into talking about "the wall" between 17th and 18th streets on E. Carson, a location he said was frequented by "train riders, beggars, et cetera." He said he and Councilman Bruce Kraus had visited the area that day and "assertive action" had to be taken against one individual "who was actually living there."

The individual was breaking rocks on the sidewalk and trying to sell them to individuals as they walked by. He was also soliciting money from passersby.

The man's belongings were packed up and taken to the fire station on 18th Street and he was told to "move along."

Commander Fisher said Allegheny Health Network was contacted about the man and he qualified for their help and they attempted to contact him to get him into appropriate housing.

Zone 3 supervisors were notified to increase foot patrols in the area and anyone loitering in the area should be moved along.

Councilman Kraus said there's been a lot of effort this week going into addressing people congregating there, adding there is clearly one gentleman in the area with issues around mental health. But he is one of about 15 people congregating there on a regular basis with the others having no issues with mental health.

"They are rail riders that are part of a movement call 'freegan'," he said. "It's a national movement of people that are healthy, wealthy and wise and have chosen simply a life to live off the grid."

He said the freegans come to cities according to the weather, armed with iPads and cellphones to stay connected. They ride the rails, making the South Side a perfect opportunity to camp by the river and come up to Carson to "deal drugs, do drugs or panhandle to get drugs."

The councilman said that part of the street (the wall between 17th and 18th streets) is private property. He explained the owner of the property is "as frustrated about the property as we are" and the property owner bemoans that he has had to spend thousands of dollars trying to correct the situation of chronic vandalism at the wall.

"This is chronic vandalism to private property and the gentleman has every right to protect his property," Councilman Kraus said.

The councilman added, according to the property site survey, where the freegans choose to sit and panhandle is private property.

"We have authority from the property owner to myself to the commander to the Mayor's Office directly that we are empowered to move anyone that is there trespassing, not loitering because the legal ramification is not loitering, not panhandling, it's trespassing. You are not there doing the business of the business therefore you are in trespass and we have every right to move them along," he said.

Mr. Kraus added if they are vandalizing private property, it is not art, it is vandalism.

"We expect that the full weight of code enforcement that we have on the books for vandalism, graffiti and destruction of private property is issued and enforced," he said.

He said the Mayor's Office has been asked to fence off the area with a chain link fence, much like an area across the 10th Street Bridge and beneath the Parkway. They are working with the property owner to clean the area up and repair the damage, "at his cost."

The wall will be painted and the South Side Clean Team will remove any new graffiti placed on the wall.

The councilman continued that the South Side is 20 years into the problem of rail riders and every year every year they fail to get a head of it and end up "playing catch up," trying to deal with a situation they shouldn't have had to deal with to begin with.

Commander Fisher said while everything Councilman Kraus said was true, a problem 20 years in the making can't be solved in two weeks.

"It's going to take time, it's going to take effort and it's going to take a joint effort," he said.

He added if people are approached by the rail riders, they shouldn't take any action themselves other than calling 9-1-1.

"This is a bigger issue than just sending a police car and running them out of there," he said.

Barbara Rudiak, president of the South Side Community Council, said several years ago there was a problem with the rail riders on the South Side Riverfront Trail. At the time, the community council worked with city officials and community groups to lessen the impact of the rail riders.

"We've never seen them damage the property and the attraction to that wall," she said.

Ms. Rudiak said they have to think about a long-term plan because if they move them from the wall in the 1700 block of E. Carson, they will just go somewhere else.

The councilman said a proactive approach is needed, not a reactive approach. Discussions started weeks before that the rail riders would be coming and how to be prepared for their return so as to not reach this point.

"We do this every year. It's March, it's St. Patrick's Day, things are coming. Rail riders will be on their way. We need to be prepared. Once they start to take root, we run into all these problems about how you have to bring in social services, you have to take the belonging, you have to store them, you have to give them six weeks' notice before you can move them. Don't let them to be there to begin with," the councilman said.

"This isn't a law enforcement problem only. We can't arrest our way out of this," Commander Fisher said. "We're going to come up with some other solutions and work as a team together on this."


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