City officials hear residents’ concerns over crime, drug use along Virgin Way
Photo: Pittsburgh City Councilman Bobby Wilson, right, speaks to residents of the Virgin Way area at a community meeting held on Sept. 12 at Bistro To Go Cafe on East Ohio Street. The meeting pertained to the issue of crime and increased homelessness occurring around Virgin Way. Photo by Sean P. Ray
By Sean P. Ray | Managing Editor
Packages stolen off of doorsteps. Trash haphazardly thrown into residents’ yards. Syringes, condoms and spilled blood found on the sidewalk and street.
These were only some of the experiences Virgin Way area residents discussed in a Sept. 12 meeting with Pittsburgh city officials, as they look for solutions to the predicament their neighborhood has found itself in.
The meeting, which was held at Bistro To Go Cafe on East Ohio Street, was attended by around 50 community members, while representing the city were City Councilman Bobby Wilson, Pittsburgh Police Zone One Commander Shawn Malloy, Laura Drogowski of the Office of Community Health & Safety, and East Allegheny Community Council President Doug Kamper.
Barbara Burns, a community member who organized the gathering, said she didn’t expect the meeting to “solve anything significant tonight,” but thought it was important that neighborhood residents be heard.
The residents and city officials spoke for more than an hour and a half. The meeting began with the community members taking turns to voice their individual concerns.
What they said lays out a grim picture of the alleyway.
One resident said one of his tenants was moving out because they heard “a dozen or so gunshots fired in the alley” on April 2.
“I have people shooting up,” the man continued. “I had someone overdose in my backyard. I had people defecate inside my backyard, I’ve had people having sex in my backyard and I paid to get a fence up but that hasn’t really solved the problems in the alley.”
A frequent complaint was residents seeing drug deals or prostitution occurring fairly openly within the alley, as well as people high on drugs. Many community members said they felt unsafe living in the area.
“I don’t like living here as much,” one woman said. “I feel threatened when I go outdoors sometimes.”
Residents also reported many beggars operating in the area, some of them even going into stores to ask for money. Homeless people and those staying in tents were also reported.
After the community members were all given their turns to speak, the city officials responded to some of the comments, offering explanations and possible solutions moving forward.
Malloy said the department has been working to bring up federal charges against drug dealers in the area, and said indictments are coming, though that process takes time. He said the department is starting by focusing on the Allegheny Commons area, where he’s noticed most of the alleged activity seems to be centered, but the department plans to branch out enforcement from there later on.
“They’re coming, they’re coming,” he said. “It’s harder to charge federally, but we like to charge federally because they get sentences to go to jail, and they stick. I can tell you right now we arrest a smaller drug dealer, he’s out the next day. And I’m not making excuses, it’s a fact.”
He also clarified some details about police procedure to the attendees. For example, he said that even if a resident witnesses an alleged drug deal and reports it, police often don’t have a case unless law enforcement catches the person in the act.
Nonetheless, he encouraged residents to report details, such as license plates, as those can be important for investigative purposes and providing leads.
Drogowski spoke on the issue of homelessness, and why it seems to have become worse. Drogowski said there was a “cacophony of factors,” ranging from the pandemic to economic struggles.
A further issue is the lack of shelter space for people facing homelessness.
“One thing I want to point out is right now in this county, there are zero shelter beds,” she said. “Zero … so when we say where can people go, it’s like that tent, or that tent.”
Wilson stressed that the city is taking the situation seriously.
“No one wants to pass the buck here,” he said. “I’m seeing the same things you’re seeing.”
However, he also said this isn’t just a matter facing Pittsburgh, but many cities across the county. He said this was an opportunity for the city to be a leader on how other areas reacted to the matter.
He promised to dedicate himself to the issue and work with organizations and individuals toward finding solutions.
“I want to work through this with you,” he said. “I want to work through with police and the alternative responses being created and try to help in any way.”
Kamper encouraged attendees to speak with him as a community representative as a way to “consolidate voices” in asking for help on the matter. He said the council could be reached at email@example.com, which also forwards to his personal email.
Kamper said city police, Wilson and the mayor’s office attend the East Allegheny Community Council meetings, which are done through Zoom, providing him a way to pass along comments. He also encouraged further participation from community members in facing the situation.
“This is not going to get fixed overnight, but we do need to continue to focus on solutions,” he said.
Attendees who spoke to the Chronicle after the meeting finished expressed positive sentiments.
Resident Nathan Parente called the meeting a “good response” by officials, though he said he wants to see more significant urgency from the city in responding to the situation. He called the problems facing Virgin Way a “public safety issue,” with neighbors facing dangerous situations.
Jermaine Cuyler, a resident and property owner in the neighborhood, said he believes the meeting provided “a lot of substantive feedback from the community” that was well-received by officials in attendance.