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Questions arise about City of Harrisburg's enforcement of Mulberry Street encampment eviction

FOX43 has learned Mulberry Street, the bridge and underpass, are all state property. That means the city has no enforcement on individuals staying on that property.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — With an eviction order looming, nonprofits continued to provide outreach to residents living under the Mulberry Street Bridge in Harrisburg on Thursday morning.

“They’re indecisive about whether they want to leave or not," said Larry McNeil, house supervisor for the Bethesda Mission for Men, "A lot of them really don’t understand what’s happening.”

The City of Harrisburg had originally ordered everyone to be out by Thursday, citing an infestation of rats and a rise in violent crime.

But because of the rain, the city is now working through the weekend to relocate people to a new spot.

According to the city's director of communications, Matt Maisel, that new location is not being publicly disclosed in order "to respect the privacy of those who wish to live without unwanted attention, as well as the social services workers who will be working diligently this week to ensure this move happens." 

FOX43 has been told the proposed location is near the Capital Area Greenbelt, a more than 20-mile trail that circles the entirety of the Pennsylvania capital region and is popular with walkers, runners and bikers.

On Thursday, Christian Churches United, a member of the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness, said the city has indicated an openness to having residents return to the Mulberry Street Bridge after it is exterminated and considered safe—likely 30 to 60 days.

“[The bridge] is part of their shelter," said McNeil. "This is the only type of area they can come and feel a little safe and out of the elements.”

Maisel told FOX43 on Thursday that once cleaning begins, no one will be allowed to return until the area is deemed safe.

However, once Public Works does that, he said the city cannot legally prevent anyone from moving back under the bridge.

In a statement to FOX43, Maisel explained, “Mulberry Street is state property; that includes the Mulberry Street Bridge, the Mulberry underpass, and any concrete supporting the bridge. It will ultimately be the state’s decision if they choose to fence it off or put up “No Trespassing” signs. The City of Harrisburg has no enforcement on individuals staying on that property, and police will monitor the space for their safety.”

Maisel stressed that "contrary to what [Christian Churches United] wrote, the city is not advising people come back, but there's nothing we can do to stop it. Only the commonwealth can."

He also said the city is concerned that if people do return to under the bridge, similar issues, like rats and increased crime, will arise again down the line.

Maisel said the mayor's office hopes during this time, individuals will use resources through the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness to find alternative living arrangements.

FOX43 reached out to PennDOT who says it “remains committed to determining an appropriate response to these circumstances. We will engage with the City and local organizations to coordinate and collaborate about the future.”

“The solution is not really ‘Where are we going to put them?’" explained McNeil. "It’s ‘What kind of help are we going to give them mentally?’”

It’s unclear how many, if any, people have moved out of the encampment already.

FOX43 reached out to representatives of both the City of Harrisburg and Christian Churches United for interviews Thursday, but neither were available.

The City of Harrisburg has scheduled a press conference for Monday, January 23 at 11 a.m. at the MLK Jr. City Government Center to answer additional questions about the process.

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