HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Harrisburg City officials have said people in the homeless encampment under the Mulberry Street Bridge have one week to move out due to what officials say is a “public health emergency.”
Harrisburg’s Mayor Wanda Williams addressed criticism over the move Friday, joined by members of the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness and other city officials. All shared the message: This is not about displacing unhoused people, it’s about safety for those people as well as the rest of the city.
Mayor Williams maintains that the Mulberry Street Bridge encampment has become a public safety hazard both because of a rat infestation and a spike in criminal activity, and removing it is necessary.
“It was really a critical emergency. We are faced with a lot of different illegal activities going down there as well as a safety and health hazard.,” she said.
Since November 2022, police said they have responded to 16 calls in the area, including six assaults and three drug overdoses. Officials said part of that spike is due to people who are not homeless coming to the encampment.
“This is a need that we see that the mayor, myself and everybody up here has talked about for years, years and years,” Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas Carter said.
However, getting rid of the encampment does not mean forgetting the people who live there.
“This was never a plan to, ‘Oh, you’re just displacing homeless, you’re not out here helping.’ We care about our clients, our homeless family, as I would any of my friends. And if I know that there’s criminal activity around them, we’re going to take the same kind of action that we are,” said Corrie Lingenfelter, executive director of Downtown Daily Bread.
Lingenfelter said Downtown Daily Bread will continue providing food and shelter.
“Our biggest concern is the safety of our clients, the safety of the homeless capacity and the population,” she said.
The number one need right now, according to the mayor’s office, is to find a place for these people to stay and provide services to those who want them. Overnight shelters are reaching capacity but shelters like Downtown Daily Bread are trying to create more space.
“Working with the overflow shelters, Bethesda Mission, I talk to them every week,” Lingenfelter said.
The city is also looking at places to relocate residents of that encampment. They say something will be ready by Thursday when they are asking residents to vacate.
Mayor Williams said safety is her first priority.
“So let it be known that it’s not something that I wanted to do on a personal note, but I had to do as the mayor of this city, not only for the safety of those individuals under the Mulberry Street Bridge but for the other 49,000 residents of the city of the Harrisburg,” she said.
Mayor Williams said she brought together the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness and other organizations in the city to create a coordinated effort to help the homeless population and streamline providing services.
“We do not want to discourage anyone from bringing food to any of the necessary homeless camps, but we want to make sure that we have a plan in place…[so] that several people are not bringing it all at the same time because the food sits there and rots and that’s what brings the rats,” she explained.
The mayor also said moving forward, this group of officials and service providers will continue working to address homelessness in Harrisburg, beyond the issue of the Mulberry Street Bridge encampment.