“Most livable city … for whom?” Referencing accolades handed to Pittsburgh by The Economist and Forbes magazine, this can’t-miss query hangs above four tents set up at the Mount Washington overlook.
While the popular destination offers tourists and locals alike breathtaking views of the Steel City, one can’t help but notice the neon orange tents. The pop-up “tent city” is a work of artistic activism by Pittsburgh’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter in a campaign ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Along with the eye-catching tent installations and banners, a second banner reading “Vote for more than this,” DSA members and volunteers are positioned at each pop-up site to help passersby create a voting plan and identify their local polling locations.
“Almost everybody has seen the increase in tent encampments around the city, and a lot of people are very aware of the struggles that our neighbors are going through here, but many people don’t really know how to help or what can they do as an individual to try to make a difference,” said Steph Sorensen, DSA membership coordinator.
The homelessness epidemic has been on the rise in the city of Pittsburgh over the past year. A February survey by Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services identified 880 individuals experiencing homelessness. According to the data, this is 188 more people than counted in 2021.
The first guerrilla art installation was set up on Mount Washington on Oct. 27. In the subsequent days, tent cities appeared in the Strip District, at Oakland’s Schenley Plaza, near Whole Foods in East Liberty, at the City-County Building Downtown and in other high-traffic locations. The Pittsburgh Labor Choir could also be found at sites playing anti-landlord songs.
Sorensen said the idea is to have the tent installations be disruptive and to help start a conversation that leads to community collective action.
“It’s a cultural norm for people who have privilege to see homeless people and pretend they don’t, and that’s really dehumanizing,” Sorensen said. “It’s just kind of gross, and so we wanted to use the tents as almost a conversation piece that we could draw people’s attention and open up the conversation with them about what some of our neighbors are going through, and what we have determined to be, in the city, that it’s not on any one individual, but it’s on all of us collectively to do better.”
Get out the vote
The tent installations are part of a campaign made possible by a grant from the Center for Artistic Activism. The campaign aims to both increase voter turnout and drum up interest around the right-to-counsel legislation the chapter is working on with Allegheny County Council members.
The first phase of the campaign involved deep canvassing sessions during September in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood. DSA members helped residents register to vote and provide information on tenants’ right to counsel and tenants’ unions.
Brenden Rearick, DSA communications coordinator, said they are trying to show residents that voting is just the first step in addressing the increase in homelessness across Allegheny County and mobilizing collective action.
“We want to use voting as a kick-starting point,” Rearick said. “We want people to cast their ballots first, but that’s not enough. We want to encourage people to take that next step, and learning about the types of legislation that we’re trying to bring to the table with the County Council and City Council members is one way to do that.”
For the final phase of the campaign, the tents used in the art installations will be donated to the unhoused community along with other supply kits and care packages funded by the grant.
Power to the tenants
The DSA’s housing committee has been talking with representatives on both city and county councils about legislation and funding guaranteeing an attorney for renters facing eviction, according to Sorensen.
“A lot of people that we’ve been talking to at the installations are kind of shocked to hear that that’s not already something that’s in place; it feels obvious,” she said.
Often, people facing evictions are unable to afford an attorney, Sorensen explained, unlike landlords who have attorneys and win the majority of eviction cases.
She called the housing crisis a structural problem, one that is about slowing down and ultimately stopping the pipeline to houselessness in addition to addressing those who need immediate help.
“It just is really weighted in a way that is very unfair to tenants … so we are in talks with the representatives to try to put forth legislation,” Sorensen said. “We’re hoping that will come up in the next couple of months, and if it doesn’t, we are going to start demanding it a lot louder because right now, the way the system is is not right.”
Earlier this month, the Pittsburgh City Council passed a bill allotting nearly $1.2 million to help provide emergency shelter services, street outreach services, rental assistance and housing relocation and stabilization services. Additionally, a 95-bed homelessness shelter is scheduled to open Downtown within the month.
When posed with the question, chapter treasurer E. Forney said the livability of Pittsburgh depends on the audience.
“I think it’s pretty livable for people who have expendable money and say, ‘The rents are so comparatively cheap to these other pricey cities,’ but we have our problems just as well,” Forney said. “Everywhere has their problems.”