Weekslong wait times for shelter, worries about being jailed for sleeping on the streets, the uncertainty of not knowing where to find your next meal or take a shower.
It’s not the life Valerie Gordon envisioned for herself, but those daily challenges are the reality of many Pittsburgh’s unhoused, and many feel they have nowhere to turn to. She has relied on the Smithfield Street Shelter, set to shutter Wednesday, for a hot meal each night.
It’s reached a point where Ms. Gordon thinks staying in Pittsburgh may no longer be an option.
“I can’t find a place to live here,” she said. “I will be leaving next month if I don’t find a place here. I mean, what am I supposed to do?”
As the impending Smithfield shelter closure potentially pushes Ms. Gordon and dozens of others to the streets, a lack of written policy has left unhoused people’s rights in limbo for years.
A 2003 landmark settlement, Sager vs. City of Pittsburgh, gave some temporary protections for people experiencing homelessness living on public property. But since then, no city ordinance or policy has cemented what advocates call people’s constitutional rights, leaving massive vulnerabilities for unhoused people to be forced out of public spaces at any time without due process.
That’s why Dan Vitek, staff attorney for the Community Justice Project, and the ACLU of PA are developing a new policy with the city to ensure those experiencing homelessness aren’t unfairly displaced.
“[Sager’s] held for 20 years as an informal policy,” he said. “But over the last few years, the crisis has increased. And the public’s understanding of the causes of homelessness has also increased. There’s more demand from our government officials to address this issue in a compassionate way that better balances the interests of the general public and the residents of encampments.”
The settlement was part of the Sager v. City of Pittsburgh case, a short-lived legal battle in 2003 that secured more due process particularly for people living in encampments. It laid out procedures for the city to provide notice before cleanups and to store any personal belongings officials take so people can reclaim later. While the provisions expired within three years, it set a precedent.
Before taking Sager to court, Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, saw the issues firsthand when he came to Pittsburgh in 1991. The city was already contending with what was called “the homeless problem” at the time.
He remembers one comment during a council meeting suggesting that the city could bus unhoused people to Cleveland.
“I feel like that symbolizes sort of the approach to homelessness at the time, which was let’s just put them somewhere where nobody can see them and we don’t have to worry about them,” he said.
He soon got involved, and by 1995, Mr. Walczak wrote to then-Councilman Alan Herzberg about proposed ordinances to restrict panhandling, arguing they impose on unhoused people’s protected free speech in public spaces. He wrote another letter to then-Chief Earl Buford to ask the police to stop “harassing” unhoused people soliciting in Downtown.
But what would spur the later Sager case was the city’s approach to encampments. In 2001, city officials directed PennDOT to sweep out people’s property beneath a ramp leading to the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
One activist, John Michel, told the Post-Gazette at the time that the action was a betrayal of a system put in place by former Mayor Tom Murphy’s Task Force on Homelessness. Among the task force’s initiatives was establishing a hotline to alert outreach workers to situations involving substance abuse or mental health.
In November 2002, Department of Public Works officials, accompanied by city police officers, conducted another sweep across multiple encampments in Downtown and the North Side. Advocates questioned the need for the so-called cleanups and said they represented a “new, harder line” the city was taking with people on the street. By then, the 24-hour hotline was underused and discontinued.
“They were showing up saying, ‘Get out, take what you can, you got 10 minutes,’” Mr. Walczak said in a recent interview. “Then they would pick up everything that was left and throw it away.”
Some of those items were life sustaining; others were irreplaceably valuable.
“Those possessions may be your only pictures of your parents or your siblings, and then that gets thrown away,” he said. “You’re never going to get that back. And getting medications can be hard to get, not to mention clothing, things like that.”
After regular complaints from street outreach workers, Mr. Walczak filed a 15-page complaint on May 5, 2003, in the Western District of Pennsylvania on behalf of three people experiencing homelessness at the time, Raymond Sager, Gary West and William Duerr.
Condemning the city’s handling of encampment sweeps, the complaint also cited insufficient beds in shelters and a lack of “written policy or practice” surrounding homelessness.
On May 9, days after Mr. Walczak filed his complaint, the ACLU and city reached a settlement, creating what the ACLU called “one of the nation’s strongest protective policies” at the time. It mandated the city to stop destroying unhoused people’s property and provide advance, written notice of sweeps.
The city was also required to store all personal possessions having some value that are collected up to a year, along with direction on how to retrieve them.
Mr. Walczak said the argument of Sager was simple: “If the government is going to take action to deprive you of life, liberty or property, they have to give you some kind of due process.”
When the settlement provisions expired in 2006, Mr. Walczak said city officials agreed to continue abiding by the Sager guidelines with a recognition that if they violated them, the ACLU would go back to court.
“I think, by and large, the city throughout all those years complied with those requirements,” he said. “We didn’t see deliberate efforts to undermine that or to try to get around that agreement.”
But last year marked a major shift
Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration shut down two encampments late 2022, including one on Stockton Avenue. To Mr. Walczak and Mr. Vitek, the “chaotic” handling more than breached the precedent set by Sager.
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Chief Operating and Administrative Officer Lisa Frank and Mr. Gainey’s office declined to comment for this story.
On Jan. 19, the ACLU of PA and the Community Justice Project sent a letter to City Solicitor Krysia Kubiak and County Solicitor George Janocsko stating that city personnel gave unhoused people living there just five days’ notice and inadequate resources to find alternative shelter.
The letter claimed the city “indiscriminately” took their possessions without any “clear inventory” or indication of how a person might recover them. One front loader lifted a sleeping woman still inside her tent, according to the ACLU’s letter, and dropped her six feet to the ground.
Mr. Vitek said the city Department of Health Services offered some help by providing options at Second Avenue Commons and other shelters. But, “what they weren’t doing is saying, what’s the consequence if you’re still here by then?” he said.
“They weren’t telling people you wouldn’t be arrested,” Mr. Vitek said. “They weren’t telling people that we won’t take your stuff.”
The actions shed light on a gap that has persisted for years: no written policy safeguards unhoused people’s rights in Pittsburgh to inhabit public space.
Even with Sager, there were certain limitations. It didn’t protect encampment cleanups from happening but rather added provisions as to how they happen.
“That’s why we need to develop a more formal policy and not just revive the Sager decree, but improve on it,” he said.
An uncertain future
A packed hearing last week that lasted five hours ignited heated discussion over the city’s care of the unhoused, focusing on the closure of a temporary overnight shelter on Smithfield Street set for Tuesday. Some argued it’s a life-and-death situation, while others in favor of the shutdown cited “aggressive panhandling” and concerns about safety and security in Downtown.
The meeting came four months after the city declared homelessness a public health emergency, and the City Council directed the Gainey administration to create policy and initiatives in response. Mr. Gainey said in April that the administration is still struggling to address homelessness and is seeking more shelter beds.