As temperatures chill, Pittsburgh’s homeless shelters face new challenges in the pandemic

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Smithfield United Church of Christ, home to the Pittsburgh Mercy emergency homeless shelter. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

With the onset of cold weather and rising COVID-19 cases locally, Pittsburgh-area homeless shelters have seen an influx of federal aid yet face unprecedented challenges in keeping an already vulnerable population safe and out of the elements.

In December, Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services received $1.2 million from the federal CARES Act. The funding will be allocated to ACTION-Housing/Team PSBG, Community Human Services and Pittsburgh Mercy to help pay the costs of temporary emergency shelter, targeted street outreach and prevention of community spread.

Service providers say the funds help. But they’ve faced numerous challenges from the pandemic — from the need for extra space for social distancing to complications in how shelters obtain food — and still rely on financial contributions from the community and other forms of funding to fill the gap.

“That funding really does not cover what it costs us to provide services — the governmental and the county funding — we're grateful for it, but we really have to support that with other funding resources,” said Annette Fetchko, the chief executive officer for Bethlehem Haven, a women’s year-round shelter.

In March, during the first peak of the coronavirus in the United States, researchers from several universities determined that about $11.5 billion would be necessary for 400,000 new shelter beds to accommodate the total estimated number of homeless people in the United States, space for social distancing, and the creation of quarantine facilities.

As the pandemic continues into the winter months, it presents a particularly threatening time for people experiencing homelessness who may not have immediate access to hygiene products, medical care and other basic necessities. 

“Each year, [the] winter shelter is challenging to get in place for one reason or another, and other years it might have been challenging to get the food situated or it may have been challenging to get the staff situated, and this year with COVID it's kind of been all of those challenges at once,” said Cynthia Shields, the assistant deputy director for housing and homelessness at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, during a September interview.

In January 2020, Allegheny County counted 887 people experiencing homelessness, already an increase from 2019. Nationwide, the older adult homeless population is also projected to trend upwards until 2030. A 2016 study also showed that homeless people around 50, in particular, age faster and develop medical conditions like memory loss or functional impairments –– making them more susceptible to contracting the virus.

“Many of the individuals that we’re privileged to serve here at Bethlehem Haven … have co-occurring physical, behavioral and social morbidities, so it is challenging when you're in a shelter, particularly in a congregate setting, to maintain safe distancing,” Fetchko explained. 

To halt the spread of the virus, shelters have changed their operations drastically, from providing individuals with free masks to expanding shelter locations to ensure social distancing.

Pittsburgh Mercy, a nonprofit community and health provider, operates and partners with several homeless shelters in the area including Bethlehem Haven. Mercy has implemented new safety measures since the start of the pandemic to keep the homeless community safe, including the use of telemedicine and community testing. 

“We realized that COVID was still going to be with us and we needed to make several adjustments,” said Tony Beltran, Pittsburgh Mercy’s president and CEO. “If we could solve some of the medical need by a telehealth visit versus a person going into the emergency room, then we might actually … decrease the risk.”

Pittsburgh Mercy also monitors symptoms in people who check in for the night. If someone presents with symptoms during check in or develops symptoms during their stay, they’re referred to Allegheny County Safe Haven Hotel, which is located five miles from Downtown. If additional capacity is needed, people will also be directed to the hotel or other homeless shelter providers.

Because winter shelters operate during the nighttime, it can be difficult to track where and who individuals using the shelter come into contact with during the day, which presents another challenge when it comes to contract tracing and community spread, Fetchko said. 

“[It] continues to be one of our biggest challenges: Where do these individuals go during the day? They're out in the community, they're co-mingling with other individuals within the community, and we all know about the community spread,” she added. 

Shelters have also had to grapple with the challenges of limiting space and distributing meals. 

Smithfield United Church of Christ, a shelter in Downtown, is only servicing 51 people, about half of their usual count of 100, Beltran said. But when Pittsburgh Mercy came to the realization that the pandemic would continue through the winter months, they knew they had to add additional space, Beltran added. 

That’s when Pittsburgh Mercy began working with Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship and Veteran’s Home, which is located in Uptown. Through the partnership, an additional 27 beds were made available for women. 

Even with the addition of beds, winter shelters have also faced challenges with meal distribution and a shortage of volunteers. 

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Bethlehem Haven accepted donated meals and had volunteers distribute those meals, but due to safety concerns, volunteers no longer come in, and meals are pre-packaged. 

Bethlehem Haven started a partnership with a community kitchen and United Way, a community based nonprofit, where minority restaurants and small businesses could keep their doors open while also reimagining their food delivery operations to also help the shelter.

Still, the change from donated meals to prepackaged meals creates a financial burden, Fetchko said. 

“Think about the cost of that and what it's now cost us to provide [prepackaged meals], so the cost of just operating shelters has increased significantly. And that is certainly from a financial standpoint, something that we look at every day,” she said. 

Even with the various financial and operational hurdles shelters have had to face this year because of the pandemic, the circumstances have brought shelters and their partners closer together to support vulnerable individuals. 

“I do think [the pandemic] taught us a lot this year … The leadership from Allegheny County Health Department and DHS has actually helped the providers kind of come more close together,” Beltran said. “We're actually working together at a different level than maybe we had in the past, and we're glad to see that happening.”

Amanda Hernandez is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at amandah@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

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