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Pittsburgh watches as U.S. Supreme Court hears major homelessness case

City of Pittsburgh watches as U.S. Supreme Court mulls homelessness case
City of Pittsburgh watches as U.S. Supreme Court mulls homelessness case 03:09

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Homeless encampments have spread through cities from coast to coast, and on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments from both sides of the issue -- cities concerned about the public's health and safety and those experiencing homelessness themselves who say they have a right to be homeless.

The encampments have become a hot-button issue throughout the country, pitting the rights of those who are homeless against public concerns about drug use, fights and unsanitary conditions at some of the makeshift communities.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt says the city has sought to strike a balance in removing certain problem encampments and allowing others to stay.

"It's case-by-case," said Schmidt. "It's about dignity and respect and people's ability to live together in society."

But some cities like Grants Pass, Oregon, have been more aggressive in removing encampments and that has put that town's policies in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Three people experiencing homelessness sued Grants Pass, saying its ban on camping in the town made homelessness a crime and violated their Eighth Amendment right prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

Federal courts in the northwest had ruled encampments could only be removed if people were given alternative shelter or housing -- a guideline the city of Pittsburgh has followed.

"We want to be thoughtful and strategic about that. We want to ensure that we dooffer everyone in an encampment an alternative place, an indoor space," Schmidt said.

The city recently removed an encampment on Fort Pitt Boulevard due to filth and open-air drug use and has become more strict on not allowing encampments to spring up in the same places. After removing tents from the Allegheny Riverfront, it has posted bold signs warning its ban on camping will be enforced.

Still, Pittsburgh, like cities across the country, is looking to the Supreme Court to clarify just what its rights are in removing encampments.

"Whatever decision is rendered, we want to make sure that it's thoughtful and we're doing best for the people of the city whether they're housed or unhoused or recreational users of our trails for everybody's safety and security and comfort," Schmidt said. 

For now, the city is in compliance with the law but has its eye on the U.S. Supreme Court to determine how best to treat its homeless population.

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