Pittsburgh Is a Shell of its Former Glory

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Flooding of the “Mon Wharf,” along the Monongahela River, has historically made parking in Pittsburgh difficult. But with the current state of Pittsburgh’s downtown, floodwaters now impose other costs: displacement of homeless people living in tents at this riverside location. A homeless man recently made a near-miss escape from a watery death there, demonstrating the perils of the situation.

Homelessness in Pittsburgh rose 23% in 2022 and has likely not improved much since, pending the results of Allegheny County’s annual point-in-time count conducted in January. Many homeless are left living on the streets and trails of Pittsburgh as the county struggles to find vacant beds for this growing population. At least two homeless people have died in tents during the cold winter months.

Homelessness and addiction go hand in hand. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that 38% of homeless people abuse alcohol, while 26% abuse drugs. In December, a 27-year-old man was found dead inside a tent at a homeless camp downtown after reports of a suspected overdose.

Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, has seen an troubling trend in overdose deaths since at least 2008, when the county recorded 254 deaths; the county reached a peak of 835 deaths in 2017. Based on these statistics, you might imagine that the area would be filled with detox and rehab facilities.

That’s not the case. Instead, the city has enabled addiction.

“This year, we’ve given out over 1.7 million syringes,” says Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that serves as one of two legal needle-exchange programs in Pennsylvania. The organization distributed more than 23,000 naloxone (Narcan) kits last year. Residents here continue to use drugs and overdose at alarming rates. With unlimited fresh needles and Narcan at their disposal, few see any incentive to take steps to try to heal themselves.

The result? Increased drug use, open-air drug markets, overdoses, crime, and housing instability. Pittsburgh is enabling and worsening the problem through bad policy.

Primarily funded by government grants, organizations like Prevention Point practice an approach known as “harm reduction.” Critics take a more skeptical view of that phrase.

“In 2011, I utilized harm reduction in the form of needle exchanges. These places were primarily run by ex-junkies trying to prevent the spread of HIV, but they also helped addicts get into detox and treatment,” said Jared Klickstein, a recovering addict and writer. He believes ideology and greed has shifted the mission in a sinister direction.

“Since then, harm reduction has been taken over by non-addict political ideologues, and it’s now expanded into an all-encompassing assisted suicide program funded by the state,” he continues. “Recovery hasn’t just taken a back seat; it’s not even on the menu for these people. It’s essentially become a tax laundering scheme that’s fueled by the maintenance of suffering.”

Indeed, for harm reduction organizations, treatment is an afterthought. “We won’t ask you to enter rehab, go to church, or find a job,” Prevention Point Pittsburgh makes clear on its website.

Used syringes often end up on the ground in public areas, creating a public health hazard. Pittsburgh has failed to comply with regulations governing these needle-exchange programs, including proper disposal, according to an investigative report by KDKA’s Andy Sheehan. Needles scatter like cigarette butts in many parts of the city and pile up in others, particularly homeless camps.

Such policies have destructive effects not only on addicts but also on the city as a whole. People aren’t moving to Pittsburgh these days. The metro area saw relatively no population growth in recent years, and as of January, daily activity downtown is still down 34% from its pre-pandemic levels.

Commercial vacancy rates correlate with downtown activity. According to real estate firm CBRE, the Pittsburgh office market saw more than 110,000 square feet vacated in the fourth quarter of last year, as various tenants moved out of spaces around the city.

Businesses that remain find themselves on edge due to alarming crime rates. Homicides fell in 2023, but only after reaching a ten-year high of 71 in 2022, while robberies, rapes, and assaults have risen year over year. Downtown business owners and merchants voiced safety concerns during a December 2022 meeting with Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration that boiled over with frustration.

Pittsburgh’s police force has historically enrolled about 900 sworn officers and was budgeted accordingly. Now the department’s reduced budget calls for only 850 officers – and it’s suiting up far less than that number presently. Approximately 747 cops are on duty now, with additional attrition expected. More than 100 officers on the current force are eligible for retirement.

Pittsburgh was once a thriving steel city with a peak population more than double what it is today. Under virtually one-party rule, it has deteriorated into a shell of its former self. Unchallenged progressive leadership is a big reason why.

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