Updated: Feb 10
#D2BK interviews Mayor Bill Peduto on his thoughts on what it takes to build a compassionate resilient city in Pittsburgh, PA.
Laura Drogowski: We’re looking to support members of our community who may have significant challenges and needs but whose voices need to be raised and part of our conversations at the city level. It’s hard when you’re dealing with a set of challenges to also self-advocate. So a lot of what we do is trying to foster better connections within human service and non-profit entities and our first responders, creating more opportunities for compassionate care and engagement.
We have people who are staying outside, and that’s not optimal. We don’t want anyone to have to stay outside. It’s not a dignified experience, and we know that it’s happening. So what we do sometimes is we go in with a set of volunteers and we tidy up spaces [homeless encampments] and make sure those spaces are hygienic and safe.
We know the folks who live in these encampments. We have a number of folks who are working for different organizations, agencies, and entities in the county that are trying to address the underlying issues that result in a person being outside. For example, on Saturday, the Mayor’s Office is coordinating with several entities to remediate waste, and this allows us the opportunity to go in and tidy up the space. In those moments, we have a great opportunity to engage, share a meal, and talk about what other needs they may be facing.
We try to operate as though this were someone’s living room. Sometimes you don’t want anyone in your living room. You just want some privacy. In those situations, we give them some space and we let them know that we care about them. Sometimes you’re having a lonely day, and in those cases, we chat with them. It’s a great time to show through our acts that we really mean this.
Q: You are bringing people who feel dehumanized back into society. Where did that passion come from?
Bill Peduto: Pittsburgh is the second most philanthropic city in the United States. And the only reason we’re not the first is because of the amount of money that Bill Gates puts into Seattle.
Our philanthropic community and that spirit began because Pittsburgh fell so hard. We basically held our heads above the water and realized that the wealth of the previous generations needed to be invested locally. Now that we’ve come back, that spirit is still there.
When I came into office, the office had a procedure for dealing with the homeless that used police officers who would go in and clean them out. The office gave people 30 days’ notice and then went in with Public Works trucks to clear them out.
That’s what it was like, but we replaced that. Now we work with the agencies that are helping the people. We learn their names and find out what they need. We coordinate cleanups of the area they live in so they can live in more humane conditions. And then over the course of 90 days, we find them a place to live. We are able to do this by getting all those agencies working together.
Michelle Obama created a program to end veteran homelessness. That first year, we had 400 veterans who were identified as not having their own place to sleep. We worked with the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania and with Mercy Behavioral Health and we coordinated efforts between these agencies that hadn’t worked together before. We worked with the Obama’s new veterans’ assistance program for housing, in order to be able to safeguard the veterans’ ability to pay rent and then we asked Pittsburghers, “Who has an apartment that wants guaranteed money to house a veteran?” We didn’t use the term “homeless person.” And we took that number of about 400 homeless veterans down to 20 within just a few years.
Of course, this is chronic, so we know there are some people who will be living outside but we know who they are and we try to get them help through the veterans’ assistance programs. We can now find a place for a veteran in less than 90 days.
LD: The whole goal is to create a system that is resilient. As the mayor indicated, there are all these phenomenal organizations that weren’t incentivized to work together before. But now, when someone doesn’t work well with one program, it doesn’t mean that they are lost to care. It doesn’t mean they go back out and live under a bridge. It means, “Ok, this program isn’t working but we’re going to hand the baton to the next program and that might be a better fit for you.”
We’re being more responsive to the needs of each individual, listening to their goals. We used to think, “Oh, if we just had more affordable housing or more open beds…” But what we’re really finding is that we need our partners to dig deeper into why these people are outside. What has happened in their past and how can we address those issues so that change is durable? How do we build up that strength of their community and how do we make this feel like their neighborhood and their home?
BP: So often, especially in the non-profit community, you’re fighting for crumbs—which are the grants and the dollars that will pay the electricity and your payroll. So those who are also working within that sector of non-profits are your competition. But we break that down. Maybe because our city is so small, we live next to each other, we go to the same temple, or what not. We break it down into the areas of the issues we’re trying to solve.
We don’t have sides in Pittsburgh. We’re very competitive when it comes to sports, but there’s no “this side, that side.” The County Executive [Rich Fitzgerald] and I aren’t competing. In fact, when we go for federal grants, we provide one letter that we both sign. So we make it very easy for Washington to know what our priorities are.
Q: How did you take out the competitive aspect in your city?
BP: On the political side, it’s because neither of us is looking to run for higher office. We’re both happy with what we’re doing. We know each other. We’re neighbors. We’ve known each other for 20 years. That’s a part of it. But another part of it is we’re the same generation that watched the city die. And we are both proud and a bit amused that Pittsburgh was able to come back because we didn’t expect that.
When they told us we were dead in the 90s, we pretty much believed it. We worked to create programs to manage decline. We became the model of managed decline with other post-industrial cities around the world. We showed them how to slowly deteriorate well. So when we see current trends, there’s no need to fight because things are going in a positive direction—that’s part of our mentality. But the bigger question is how labor and corporate work so well in this town. How do we have that partnership where we didn’t even have to ask the PNC Bank to raise their wages to $15 an hour. They did that without a prompt from us because they knew it was the right thing to do. How do you have that type of thing happen?
Back in 2007, 12 years ago, before there was any Green New Deal, in Pittsburgh the Sierra Club and the steelworkers came together to form the BlueGreen Alliance. Good jobs, green jobs. And for the past 12 years, we’ve been building that out. The city of steel, the city of coal, the city of natural gas, the city of oil, all of the jobs from those sectors are now less than the jobs from renewable energy. Renewable energy jobs are now more than the jobs of coal, oil, and gas combined.
How does that type of transition happen? Collaboration. Sierra Club and steelworkers used to fight each other about the mills and the pollution and everything else. And then they realized that if they worked together, they could create different policies domestically. For example, producing wind turbines with U.S. Steel to be able to power this country and grid systems that would hire electrical workers that were Union and create good paying jobs while at the same time on the foreign side, looking at fair trade, how trade can affect the climate. How trade can affect the wages of workers around the world and being able to do that. That’s at a macro level. On a micro level, it’s this Saturday with our volunteer programs helping individuals, giving them dignity. That’s [the spirit of] Pittsburgh.
I think the world saw it after October 27, with the shooting at Tree of Life. They noticed something happen immediately. There wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction of yelling or finger-pointing. It was all compassion, which is stronger than hate.
Even politically, there’s a lot of crossing of party lines in order to get things done if it’s for Pittsburgh. Because there’s pride here.
LD: There’s a culture of helping in this city. [Our roots are] from different countries, so when people came here, they worked together. The Polish immigrants all knew each other, worked together, went to church together. When someone’s husband was hurt in a mill accident, everyone else chipped in to figure out how to help that family. And you saw this tremendous forming of “we win together or we lose together” attitude.
We’re very much still rooted in that. Our neighbors are our family. I remember growing up, my father would stop the car to help change tires, and my mother would help people cross the street. It sounds cliché, but there are so many stories of people driving 20 minutes out of their way to help visitors get to restaurants. This is common. This is not a hokey story. This happens all the time. And that’s what makes collaboration easier, even though there might be a competitive spirit among the organizations. It’s for the greater good and I do think it’s something extremely unique in this city—which sometimes feels like a town—is that we have a vested interest in seeing others around us be happy and successful.
BP: There are some great examples by the mayors of Anaheim and Kentucky where compassion is the major filter that all their legislation goes through.
Take the example of opioid addiction. Simple things like having first responders stop referring to people as “frequent flyers,” [paying attention to] how they are treated while in jail, and [making sure they receive] mentoring from others who have gone through withdrawal, and then being able to help by having someone else who is in the system being able to get out of jail and put immediately on Medicare to be able to take that (if you are going through a treatment that involves methadone treatments). So cost doesn’t need to be a factor.
LD: Our medics, Pittsburgh EMS, they were the first in the state to do NARCAN leave-behinds, which is an antidote for overdoses. There were people who were declining to go to the emergency room after an overdose because they were having a negative experience in those emergency rooms. In those situations, our medics leave them with NARCAN and say, “We will keep showing up. We want to be here and interrupt the cycle in whatever way we can, but we want you to be safe.”
This was a program that our now-assistant chief of EMS pushed through. And ours was the first EMS bureau in the state to do it. We have that sense of wanting to continue to engage people, wanting to create that bridge so that when someone is ready to walk it, it’s there. And that takes time and investment.
Our medics and our police force recognized that they were responding to these opioid overdoses the same way [as in the past] but expecting a different outcome. They didn’t have the tools to interrupt the cycle of overdose-and-use and they feared that the next time they showed up, they might not be in time. So our Public Safety Director mandated that all of our bureaus—firefighters, police force, EMS—responded in the event of an overdose; whoever could get there first would administer the antidote.
But we knew that still wasn’t enough, so we partnered with the Community Medic Program at the Center for Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and that’s a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh itself and the South Pittsburgh Opioid Action Coalition, which is a neighborhood and resident coalition that addresses stigma and provides opportunities for people in their community who use drugs to access health and whatever that means to them. What we drove with this partnership is a unit that follows up with the person after they have experienced an overdose.
The follow-up team doesn’t assume anything. They get to know the person and understand what that person’s challenges are. Do they have overdue bills? Are they being evicted? Do they have a pending court case that’s preventing them from addressing other issues? Do they lack access to medical care? It’s a comprehensive approach to the person and if treatment is among the things the person is seeking then we’re on it. And we’re going to find a program that best suits that person’s need, whether that’s a medication-involved treatment or an abstinence treatment, we work with the person’s goals. We intend 90 days but the program is flexible.
Since starting this program, we’re also looking to have it available at the Public Defender’s office. We’re looking to see if we can have it available for people after they leave jail. Leaving jail is a difficult transition, you often leave it in a worst place than when you started because your connections are likely broken. So we’re looking to expand the use of that program to our libraries.
It’s the idea that we can’t do it by ourselves. There’s no reason we should because we have all this talent and expertise and interest in the community. How do we just bring it together?
Between the time of 2017 and the third quarter of 2018, we saw a 55 percent reduction in overdose calls and that’s the result of everyone pitching in to help. That’s a result of everyone going out.
We had 1,110 overdose calls in the City of Pittsburgh in 2017. Our first responders were at their wits’ end. They were going from call to call. It was a series of negative circumstances that they were walking into. So the post-overdose response team is a piece of this much larger strategy on how do emergency response spaces become a place where someone wants to go? If these individuals go in and they feel they are called a derogatory term, they’re never going to go back and we don’t want that to be the case.
I met someone years ago in the recovery community and something they said stuck with me. “Let the answer be ‘yes.’” Sometimes you can’t say “yes” right away because you don’t have the resources, but you don’t say “no.”
I think the culture that the mayor has cultivated is to ask “Why?” Ask why the reason something is being done and how do we improve it. How do we address these underlying issues? Why is this not being done? And what can we do to change that?
Q: Are there a lot of immigrants in your city?
BP: When you have no jobs, you have no immigrants. We went through decades of people not coming to Pittsburgh, but now we’re seeing it really take off. So we created a program called “Welcoming Pittsburgh,” and we work directly with all the different institutions that are working to bring immigrants and refugees to Pittsburgh and trying to find where there are gaps, what the city can do, and then the key—empower—how can we enable the organizations to do even more.
Our recommendations that came through this report were as simple as having downtown tours in different languages that we provide for the people who are moving here. We also have comprehensive programs of translation that we just enacted. The organizations themselves, such as Casa San Jose, will tell you some of the best relationships between police and documented and undocumented immigrants exist within Pittsburgh.
The president tried to demand that if we were to receive grant funds for a specific police program, we had to say that we wouldn’t be a sanctuary city. I said no. And then we joined in a lawsuit from California, and we won in federal court because it is unconstitutional to demand that local law enforcement be commandeered by the federal government. If it meant that we wouldn’t get the grant, we wouldn’t get it. But we weren’t going to turn our back on our neighbors.
LD: One of the people I know at Casa San Jose has told me, “I like the police. They get justice for us and do what needs to be done.” Our police force is about service and justice, and its focus is on how to keep our neighbors safe and not in these discussions going on at a national level that are so inflammatory.
BP: Our neighbors don’t worry. If there’s something that’s bad, they call 911. They don’t have to think, “If I call 911, they’re going to find my cousins here. They’re going to deport them.” We don’t do that and we let them know we don’t do that.
[Regarding] how technology is being used in Pittsburgh. This is a website that is available to everyone: BigBurgh.com. [We made it] a website because if it’s an app you have to have a credit card in order to go on iTunes and all that other stuff. This way, it’s available to everyone. The tagline is “Things are tough? Find good, free stuff here.” It’s in Spanish, too.
My officers have this on their phone, librarians have this, everyone has this. This is for anyone who is in need. You don’t have to be homeless to utilize this. If you are on limited income and you want to find something that is available for free this is [a real-time directory of] all the resources for free services in Pittsburgh. If you need a place to stay the night, you can find it. For example, say there’s an officer, and he’s walking down the street and he encounters someone on the street who has a toothache. Ok, so let’s find out what we can do about that. GPS shows that the closest place for free medical is .3 miles away.
LD: And in terms of collaboration [to create this site], it was the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, the City of Pittsburgh, and there was support from the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation. [To create it] there was this really robust collaboration. The police were extremely involved. This was intensive work that grew from officers saying, “We are encountering people who don’t need to go to jail! They have a toothache! They don’t know where to sleep.” So it was asking ourselves why don’t we have a way to meet this? And then leadership finding a way.
BP: It’s not a competition between the different food banks. It’s all of the homeless shelters. So if you have a city like this, how do you take it to the next phase, what’s the next big phase in this type of collaboration?
We’ve been working over the past three years on 1PGH. It’s working together to pull our resources to identify what the critical areas are. We’ve been working with the Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropy, Harvard, Brookings, all those different groups, and we’ve been able to identify 46 different projects that will deal with the stresses the city faces, the everyday issues, racial disparity, environmental degradation, disparity in housing, the economic shocks, landslides, manmade or natural disasters. How do you build a city out that is [sustainable]?
The idea is that you create a whole program outside of what city government does that will address the different issues and show what we can put in from government and then where the gap is. We’re looking at 4 billion dollars of spending over the next 12 years. Of that, we have a gap of five hundred to six hundred million. For that five hundred to six hundred million, we’re asking our hospitals, our universities, our corporations, our philanthropic communities to join with us and then work to be able to deal with it.
But what is it that we’re trying to do? For our people, pre-K for all. High-quality learning environments for infants and toddlers. Expanded sports opportunities for kids. In the workforce, turning our recreation centers into tech centers for kids. Business district managers, financial inclusion, it goes on and on. Affordable housing. Creating a bridge ID program so that every person has identification. Not just refugees. But kids, too.
Each of these different initiatives was written by people like Laura who work within that field in order to put together the plan but also partnering with all of these local groups within the city. All these different groups were asked their input in order to put together the 46 proposals. So my job now is to become the chief fundraiser for the City of Pittsburgh.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the initiatives and programs the City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Office has instituted, visit: http://pittsburghpa.gov/city-info/press-releases