Perspective on Homelessness
By Maggie Medoff
On June 30, Pittsburghers were given four hours to scour the motor vehicle free streets of Lawrenceville, the Strip District, and Downtown during OpenStreetsPGH, an annual event that encourages people to engage with the community and the outdoors.
Participants walked, ran, rollerbladed, and rode their bikes through the four mile route scattered with local service providers and vendors that offered rest stops for attendees along the way. Hosted by BikePGH, the free event included activities from City Paper’s Burger Bash, CCAC’s Giant JENGA, DIY classes lead by WorkshopPGH, and unicycle and balance bike classes by Thick Bikes.
On 17th Street and Penn Avenue in the Strip District, the Allegheny County Human Advisory Board educated passersby on the breakdown of homeless people in Allegheny County in 2018—115 veterans, 85 families, and 56 unsheltered individuals—and homelessness resources offered through the Allegheny Link, whose mission is to help elderly individuals, professionals and caregivers, and people suffering from housing crises.
Jay Poliziani, the director of Northside Common Ministries and one of the people working the booth, handed out flyers advertising a call for art and storytelling submissions for “Drawn To Home,” a collaborative cartoon and story sharing opportunity that would express the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness. The cartoon would be aimed at an audience of middle and high schoolers, and would be presented similarly to “Walk on By,” a series of local art about understandings of homelessness, currently being displayed at the Carnegie library in Southside.
At the intersection, two crossing guards cheered about the Advisory Board’s free hot dogs and lemonade, bringing more traffic to the booth. While some only stopped to grab a quick bite, others asked questions about resources and the possibility of donating to services working to end homelessness.
Sean DeYoung (shown on the top banner picture above), the Chief Executive Officer for Allies for Health and Wellbeing—the largest and oldest HIV/AIDS service organization in Western PA—grilled hot dogs while engaging with visitors about the intersections between housing and healthcare.
“If you are worried about where you are sleeping tonight or that you might get evicted or your lights shut off, you probably are not concerned about missing therapy or a doctor’s appointment,” DeYoung said. “When we see stable housing, we see very good physical and behavioral health outcomes. For my clients in particular, housing equals healthcare.”
The brief conversations shared between Advisory Board members and Pittsburgh residents offered some valuable insight into how different people respond, or choose not to respond when witnessing homelessness around the city.
Joanna Wallander and her family stopped by the booth to grab some lunch and hear more about the Allegheny Link—they recognized the Homeless Advisory Board booth from previous OpenStreetsPGH events they’d attended.
While Wallander has given money to homeless people and street performers in the past, she has some geographic distance from homelessness now because of where she and her family live.
“We don’t live in the city, we live in the suburbs. So homelessness isn’t something we see on a daily basis,” Wallander said.
Wallander, like many other attendees who expressed their encounters with homeless people, prefers to give money to her church and organizations she trusts, rather than handing off money to people she drives past on the street.
Wallander’s church is part of the Family Promise of Southwestern Pennsylvania program, which houses homeless children and families, providing shelter and meals to those who are unable to find resources independently. The average family stays with Family Promise for 42 days before eventually finding sustainable and independent living on their own. Family Promise connects families with a network of local congregations of all different denominations.
Chaofan Zhang, another attendee of OpenStreets, usually avoids homeless people when he sees them around the city. He doesn’t believe giving money or food is a good idea, because he never knows what the money is being spent on. He thinks begging for money only provides short term benefits without any long term support.
“If you keep receiving money on the street, you’ll have less motivation to receive professional help,” Zhang said.
According to him, if people are going to respond at all when they pass homeless individuals on the street, it’s more effective to respond by informing them of shelters and resources around the city rather than giving food or pocket change.
Zhang said he often has debates with his friend about the moral responsibility of being charitable—he doesn’t think someone is mean or inherently bad if they don’t donate to charities. Instead of throwing responsibility on individual actors to be charitable, he thinks the most important thing is to fix the broken system that’s to blame for displacing families in the first place.
Jason Nestor and Brittany Martin, two locals who live in the Strip District, parked their bikes at the booth to cool down with some lemonade. According to Martin, they don’t see many homeless people in the neighborhood on a regular basis. While they might stop to give change out every once in a while when someone holding a cardboard sign at a street corner, ending homelessness is not a cause they worry about on a daily basis. Nestor puts most of his money toward animals and local police forces.
Sean DeYoung was surprised at how many people were stopping to have a dialogue about homelessness.
“When people see that most people and families that are considered ‘homeless’ are being taken care of in shelters and then linked to housing, it surprises them. A lot of folks I talk to have an image of a person panhandling on the street or living in homeless camps,” DeYoung said. “I think that events like this are really great and can help people look at things from a different perspective.”
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