South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

Spike in violent crime, homelessness focus at Zone 3

­­- Council learns of latest efforts in engagement, prevention -

 


A spike in violent crime in Pittsburgh was a major focus of the June 24 Zoom monthly meeting of the Zone 3 Public Safety Council (Z3PSC).

The meeting kicked off with a presentation on homelessness -- who the homeless are, their rights, available services, and impediments to those services.

As to what constitutes homelessness, Dan Palka, administrative director, AHN Program for Homeless and Urban Poverty Medicine, said "it could be anyone."

"People do the best they can to be presentable," he said.

The homeless could be living under bridges, or in tents, park structures, a cemetery house, abandoned homes, or elsewhere. Or, they could be living in, say, their grandmother's empty house without utilities.

"Homelessness isn't always homelessness," he said.

Types of homelessness include chronic, unstably housed, episodic, substance use, trauma, or factors like financial crisis, mental health, and COVID-19.

Mr. Palka said those experiencing mental health crises are more likely to encounter police than medical help.

There is on-going street outreach in a pilot program, he said.

Teams canvas police zones 1, 2, and 5 in shifts. Outreach specialists and community healthcare workers engage those experiencing homelessness, and strive to maintain supportive relationships.

Police, EMS, and other professionals provide referrals to connect to services.

Mr. Palka said services in the county are overseen by the Allegheny County Dept. of Human Services. Call the Allegheny Link at 1-866-730-2368, or visit www.alleghenylink.com, to learn of available services for one's needs.

He called it a "one-stop shop."

There is also the city's BigBurgh.com, or "Pittsburgh's Safety Net Web-App," a free web app providing easy-to-use listings of free services.

The mobile-optimized website can be viewed on any smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer with a data plan or internet connectivity.

One does not have to give name, address, or any personal information to access the app.

There is also a winter shelter at 620 Smithfield St., downtown, which is open from Nov. 15 to June 30. Call 412-722-6379 for men, and 412-498-0908 for women.

Mr. Palka said to call 311 about homelessness one witnesses and his team will receive the message.

To a question from Z3PSC President Liz Style of why Zone 3 was not chosen for the pilot canvassing program, Laura Drogowski, of the new Office of Community Health and Safety, said there is a lot of outreach currently in South Side.

A county-wide count also found many homeless people in Zones 2 and 5.

City Councilman Bruce Kraus said he would like to see discussion separating "deliberate vagrancy" from real homelessness, citing the rail riders and transients in South Side as the former.

He said there has been much harm to East Carson St. businesses from major construction on the street and the pandemic, and "chronic disrupters" are not needed.

His frustration is that businesses and the cultural district are being disrupted.

"It has not been a good summer," he said.

Currently, there is no less than 20 to 25 people camped in the business district and panhandling.

The county needs a better definition of vagrancy versus homelessness, he said.

We deal here with a deliberate vagrancy which is destructive, he said.

Next, in the crime trends/Zone 3 update, Commander John Fisher said there have been 31 homicides in Pittsburgh this year, which marks a 55 percent increase from last year at this time.

Seventy-eight aggravated assaults with a firearm also reflect a 55 percent rise from a year ago.

"Violent crime is up," he said.

In response to problems in the South Side bar district he "beefed up" manpower. Improved lighting should also help, he said.

The commander ordered a "zero tolerance policy" for the area.

He pointed to a complete societal breakdown, citing the killing of a 15-year-old boy in Brookline and other local shootings.

"I am at a loss of what's causing this," he said.

Mr. Kraus said he and nighttime economy coordinator Allison Harnden have become aware that streets are turning into their own venues. A problem is that people come just to be on the street, and not to frequent any of the businesses.

He said the addition of light towers on 15th and 17th streets should also help with public safety while also increasing visibility for police.

A safety lane at 12th through 17th streets is also important in case the EMS must respond.

Mr. Kraus said customers come out at the invitation of businesses on social media. He offered an open invitation to businesses to attend a meeting to discuss who they are inviting.

The commander said it is important for him to let businesses know if they are not being a good neighbor, and need to clean up their act.

Mr. Kraus said there must be violence inside a business for the district attorney to become involved.

South Side Community Council (SSCC) president Barbara Rudiak said there is a need for all businesses and the community to get together.

"We are at a point where people are afraid," she said of the residents.

"Bullets can fly anywhere," she said.

Patrons are now overflowing onto side streets, she said, to which Mr. Kraus said he will see that the side streets are barricaded as construction occurs.

Ms. Rudiak also said patrons are parking anywhere and not worrying about being ticketed as there is no enforcement of the residential parking district.

Next, a South Side resident and business owner said she and her husband were verbally assaulted when they asked revelers to move from the couple's parking spot in the front of their home. She said she does not feel safe anymore.

Commander Fisher told her to call 911 in such situations.

He said the prior weekend 20 police officers were assigned to 12 streets, or six blocks. He bumped that up to 30 officers last weekend. Their shifts end at 4 a.m.

"I am at a loss what to do from an enforcement standpoint. I can't keep throwing officers at it," he said.

Mr. Kraus said the Liquor Control Board has to begin calling in licenses.

Commander Fisher said one bad business owner does not even live in the city. Rather, he goes home to his tranquil community after disrupting the South Side neighborhood.

An Allentown resident said she sees visibly intoxicated people on Warrington Ave. in the afternoon.

"During the day it is just getting messy," she said of the area.

Commander Fisher will look into the problem.

The next speaker was Reverend Eileen O. Smith, director of the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace (SPCP), a conglomerate of groups and agencies committed to the prevention of violence in South Pittsburgh.

The SPCP provides a voice in the community when there are homicides, especially of children.

"I'm sick of people dying in the streets," she said.

The organization also engages in community outreach, which is a cornerstone of the group.

Rev. Smith reported the South Pittsburgh Peacemakers (SPP), which is an initiative of the SPCP, engaged in 46 interventions in March-April-May with individuals, gangs, and domestic violence possibilities.

The SPP canvassed 603 total blocks in May, 562 blocks in April, and 622 blocks in March.

The SPP consists of intervention specialists and a chaplain who strive to prevent shootings by identifying and mediating potentially lethal conflicts. It works with churches and other organizations.

Rev. Smith said a few recently awarded grants will allow the SPP to bring a former Peacemaker back on board.

Richard Carrington, SPP's team leader, has previously stated if the team comes in contact with people with guns, they try to get them to put the guns down. 

Team members will also share information on optional job programs and resources with people leaning toward violence.

Rev. Smith said there is a need to work closer with Zone 3 and the commander.

"Peacemakers are risking their lives out there," she said. 

For more information, visit: www.southpitts-burghcoalitionforpeace.org and Facebook.

In his report, CeaseFirePA Western Pennsylvania manager Josh Fleitman said a lot comes down to policy. CeaseFirePA is the largest and longest-serving anti-gun violence group in Pennsylvania.

A good federal strategy, he said, is the crackdown on illegal gun dealers, as announced recently by President Biden, and to be conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

Federal funding for community violence prevention programs is coming, he said.

Such programs are also being proposed on the state level, with $100 million for community work on gun violence advocated for in the new state budget.

Mr. Fleitman said he opposes a bill being considered in the state legislature that would allow residents to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.

He can be contacted at josh.fleitman@ceasefirepa.org

For more information on CeaseFirePA, visit: https://www.ceasefirepa.org/about-us/

Next, Jay Gilmer, the city's STOP the Violence coordinator, said to reach out to him or the South Pittsburgh Peacemakers if you know of a volatile situation and are fearful of violence erupting.

He or the Peacemakers can intercede and prevent violence.

He can be reached at Jay.Gilmer@pittsburghpa.gov

In community announcements, National Night Out (NNO) is Tuesday, Aug. 3, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The annual event is designed to advance the importance of neighborhood unity and community-public safety relationships, and will be held locally in various neighborhoods as porch gatherings, block parties, festivals, and more.

The deadline is July 27 for block watches to register their neighborhood's NNO event with the city's Dept. of Public Safety to receive resources for their celebrations. The address is: pittsburghpa.gov/national-night-out/index.html

In 2019, Zone 3 had the most NNO events of all of the zones.

The next Z3PSC meeting will be via Zoom at 6 p.m. on July 22. The topic will be "Public Safety and Mental Health Issues."

All meetings through 2021 will be held via Zoom.

 

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