woman distributing food
Carole Bailey, CEO of East End Cooperative Ministry, helps to distribute take-out meals in mid-March at the East Liberty facility, which includes 51 beds for the homeless. (Photo courtesy of Michael Bartley, East End Cooperative Ministry)

Update (4/2/20): Allegheny County has reached an agreement with the nonprofit Familylinks to provide quarantine space, if needed, for any teens who have been placed with families for child welfare reasons. The arrangement provides space for as many as 15 teens, according to a Department of Human Services spokesperson.
The county has also entered into a new contract with nonprofit Community Human Services to provide “emergency shelter services” to people with “no permanent legal residence,” as the contract puts it. PublicSource obtained the contract, which provides space for as many as 33 “homeless households,” with a total cost capped at $496,232. The spokesperson wrote that the county “is finalizing discussions with Community Human Services,” and added that talks continue with other facilities “to support the county in its response to the pandemic.”

People with “nowhere else to go” who have been exposed to the new coronavirus may be quarantined at the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport, according to a contract between the Allegheny County Health Department and the hotel’s owner, obtained by PublicSource.

The contract, dated March 20 and effective April 1, provides an “in case of emergency” quarantine option meant, at least in part, for “travelers entering Pittsburgh,” and has not yet been utilized, county spokesperson Amie Downs wrote in a March 28 email answering questions from PublicSource.

According to the contract, the Health Department will identify people in need of quarantine because they “have been in direct contact with an individual who has been infected with the coronavirus.” The hotel will then provide them with individual rooms, three meals and clean linens daily. The meals and linens will be left outside the door of the room.

The contract pledges that the Health Department will “reimburse Hyatt for all costs Hyatt incurs” in lodging, feeding, transporting, and providing linens and any medical supplies to the quarantined people. “Reimbursement for services provided will be made available through a federal grant for COVID-19 Emergency Response,” wrote Health Department Senior Deputy Director Ron Sugar, in response to a request for details on the anticipated source of funds to pay the Hyatt.

Downs wrote that the county is “talking to dozens of sites, including hotels, about potential quarantine and isolation locations, including [for the use] of homeless individuals.”

For homeless and displaced, COVID-19 presents challenges that Allegheny County is scrambling to meet

(Original story published 3/17/2020)

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] on Tuesday confirmed plans to open a facility for people experiencing homelessness who require quarantine due to the novel coronavirus, within a week. The county declined then to specify the location of the facility, or of several other such facilities that, the department spokesperson wrote in response to questions, may “be available within the next two weeks.”

According to the department, the county is trying to establish at least three facilities. One will serve people who are living in shelters or on the streets and whose age or health conditions make them vulnerable to coronavirus, but whose conditions don’t demand complete isolation. A second will serve displaced families. The third will address people who are sick enough to require “complete isolation.”

The county already has a facility for children in out-of-home placements who may need to be quarantined and is still negotiating with hotels for more space to meet coronavirus-related human services needs, the spokesperson wrote. There are not yet any known cases of coronavirus in homeless or displaced people in the county, the spokesperson wrote on Tuesday.

Staff at shelters have begun asking clients whether they are experiencing symptoms and, in some cases, taking temperatures — but said last week that they didn’t yet know what to do when they find a case.

“In order for us to isolate [a presumed positive person], we would have to clear out the other people in the room,” said Carole Bailey, CEO of East End Cooperative Ministry, where clients are housed as many as six to a bedroom. That would mean empty beds and lost government reimbursements for a 51-bed facility that is currently full, and facing rising costs driven by the costs of sanitizing supplies.

She said her shelter’s staff has so far asked one client to wear a surgical mask because of possible symptoms, but is increasingly concerned as reports of asymptomatic carriers proliferate. “Without being able to get tested, we can’t know,” she said. “So we might have five or 10 people in our homeless shelter right now that have it, but we don’t know because we can’t just get tested.”

DHS has given service providers information on screening clients for the virus.

The county’s official count of people experiencing homelessness has hovered below 800 in recent years.

That population may be among the most imperiled and the most perilous members of the community during the COVID-19 crisis, some advocates for the displaced warned.

People without permanent homes are at risk “based on age, health concerns, and access to medical care,” Plunkett wrote, and because they typically live in group settings, “precisely the setting the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] advises against.”

“The transient nature of that population does pose a risk,” said Jerrel Gilliam, executive director of the Light of Life Rescue Mission, which continues to house and feed people without regular shelter, with some modifications to procedures, during the crisis. “It poses a risk for them and for others. They can be carriers and they can also be victims of this virus.”

Light of Life is screening clients and “if anybody has a fever, if you have shortness of breath,” said Gilliam, they’re “not allowed to stay here or receive services.”

The Central North Side mission has also set up a tent as daytime shelter — a departure from the usual practice of steering clients away from the facility for the day — and has installed a handwashing station.

A tent set up to provide daytime shelter for homeless people, at the Light of Life Rescue Mission, in the Central North Side. (Photo courtesy of Doug Smith, Light of Life)
A tent set up to provide daytime shelter for homeless people, at the Light of Life Rescue Mission, in the Central North Side. (Photo courtesy of Doug Smith, Light of Life)

East End Cooperative Ministry has stopped serving sit-down meals, instead distributing grab-and-go meals, Bailey said.

She added that many of her shelter’s clients face mental health challenges and have less access to information than most people.

“We have signs that say, ‘Please maintain a reasonable distance of about 6 feet between you,’” she said. “They are asking us, as they get in the line, why they have to do that.”

East End Cooperative Ministries, Light of Life and three facilities owned by ACTION-Housing are continuing to take new clients. City Mission in Washington, Pa., though, is responding to the virus by declining to accept new residents at its shelter, according to its website. That shelter, which has 160 beds and 150 residents, “decided it was best, for the protection of our residents and to help mitigate the spread of the disease within the community, to pause our resident intakes,” wrote Leah Dietrich, director of residential programs, in response to questions.

The crisis comes after the winter homeless shelter, at Smithfield United Church of Christ, closed on Sunday, as previously scheduled. Typically, the shelter continues to be available for harsh weather nights through the end of March, said Zandy Dudiak, a spokesperson at Pittsburgh Mercy, which operates the shelter and serves some 2,500 people experiencing homelessness annually in all of its programs.

“We don’t know if we will reopen, just given the circumstances with COVID-19,” she said.

Update (3/28/20): This story was updated to reflect further information provided by the county about the contract with the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport and the county’s efforts to secure quarantine sites for homeless people.

Update (3/26/20): This story was updated to reflect the county’s entrance into a contract with the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines.  Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a MATCHED gift!

Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.

Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...