At the Light of Life Rescue Mission, signs of crisis came early this year. 

Staff at Downtown Pittsburgh’s cold-weather shelter reached out in early January to ask Light of Life to help with the overflow of people experiencing homelessness. And they did, by opening extra beds. But the crisis has not abated. 

Light of Life continues operating at overflow capacity to this day, at a time of year when they would have expected the need to have dissipated. 

“We’re expecting this to be a long-term situation,” said Jerrel T. Gilliam, executive director of Light of Life. “It is time to raise the red flag and to say, ‘It’s all hands on deck.’ We have to get some solutions quickly before this crisis is much worse than it is.”

Some shelters serving people without housing in the Pittsburgh area report that they have either been operating at capacity since the beginning of the year or having a harder than usual time finding more permanent housing solutions. 

The strain is caused by what Shannon Shaffer, senior manager of operations at Bethlehem Haven, called “a perfect storm” of factors driven in part by more than two years of the pandemic.

  • Providers face a changing mix of emergency needs like mental health challenges and substance/alcohol use. 
  • Rents have been rising all across the United States, including Pittsburgh.
  • The eviction moratorium expired in August, and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) phased out in May. 
  • Waiting lists for stable housing solutions are getting longer. Extremely low-income households in the Pittsburgh metro area (a seven-county region) exceed the number of affordable and available rental units by nearly 43,000 homes, according to the Gap Report released in March by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  

Social services have been strained beyond the norm, Shaffer said, and new populations require help.

“We have seen an increase in needs, trending among older individuals,” she said. “Older women are aging into homelessness and experiencing this sort of acute form of trauma for the first time.”

East End Cooperative Ministry President and CEO Carole Bailey, left, and Director of Housing and Employment Services Nicole Harrington. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

At the East End Cooperative Ministry [EECM], president and CEO Carole Bailey has seen a higher number of people seeking their services. 

“Pre-pandemic 2019 to 2020, we were at about 80% to 85%” of capacity, she said. In 2020, EECM had 50% to 60% of the beds full, with the dip likely due to support available through government programs and policies like the eviction moratorium. 

“We are now almost at 100% capacity all the time,” Bailey said. “We have a waiting list for both our recovery house and our emergency shelter.” 

Bethlehem Haven, an emergency shelter serving women, has also seen a change. “In recent months, the wait times have been longer for our guests. It’s taking longer to provide permanent housing. It’s almost like a stall,” said Kendra Toseki, the emergency shelter supervisor.   

A new state-of-the-art facility under construction promises to alleviate some of the strain. Second Avenue Commons is supposed to open in the fall. The facility will include a low-barrier shelter to serve people with various needs, including those who cannot be accommodated at other shelters for various reasons. But its rules of engagement with public safety agencies are still in the works.

Providers: Harder to serve

COVID has not only translated into economic insecurities. For some people, it also triggered mental health crises. Gilliam said COVID brought isolation, and isolation brought depression and self-medicating behaviors. “We’ve seen an increase of people on the street that have underlying mental health issues,” he said.

The available shelters in Allegheny County are not always able to provide the level of care people in mental health emergency need, Gilliam explained. They can’t always handle people who are suicidal, have schizophrenia, struggle with paranoid thoughts or threaten others. 

Shelter providers tried to convene a conversation earlier this spring about supporting people with severe mental health needs, according to Gilliam. But little came of it. They don’t have a solution yet to prevent people with urgent needs from hurting themselves or others. 

“We were trying to say to the county, we need to have an intervention with these people who have severe mental health [needs]. … We can’t help them,” he said. “They need a place to go to that has a higher level of care.”

Volunteers cut green beans and sweet potatoes to make pinakbet, a Filipino vegetable stew. Along with pinakbet, volunteers also made a pork adobo dish to serve for lunch. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Stigma and potential criminalization of mental health difficulties make it harder to find a lasting solution. According to Bailey at the EECM, it can be hard to convince people who have severe mental health issues or substance abuse issues to see health professionals. 

“Because one, everything is so backed up and there’s not enough mental health professionals,” Bailey said. “And two, because a mental health diagnosis may follow people around and make it harder to access jobs, housing and other services.” 

County: No recent change

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] supports a range of services to prevent homelessness, and funds and works with a network of shelters. It tracks the number of available beds and shares the tally with the network of providers daily. It also conducts an annual one-day count of people experiencing homelessness. Since 2020, that has  resulted in tallies ranging from 692 to 887.

DHS acknowledges that some shelters are at capacity but says, overall, it’s business as usual.

“We have a process every day where we share out the number of available beds at the shelters with our provider network. Some shelters are full and some are not. I wouldn’t say that there has been a change recently with that,” said Andy Halfhill, administrator of homeless services at the DHS. 

A single tent on the overpass above I-376 on Smithfield Street. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

The county engages with the service providers, the Homeless Advisory Board and various subcommittees to assess the ongoing need. It also says it responds to the Director’s Action Line to which people can submit concerns and problems they experience with homelessness services. 

Halfhill from the DHS acknowledges that there are unmet needs, especially among the unsheltered, and points to the Second Avenue Commons as a way to bridge the gap: “We know that that is going to be a great asset to the community that will add more capacity.”

New shelter: Walls built, rules still undone

Second Avenue Commons, slated to open mid-September, is designed to address some of the barriers for people experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County. With 95 year-round beds and an additional 40 available in the winter, it will expand shelter capacity. 

The future site of Second Avenue Commons currently under construction. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

The five-story, 45,000-square-foot building will have four entities operating inside. As a low-barrier shelter, it will be able to accommodate people who have pets, partners and those who may be actively using drugs. 

The project was spearheaded by PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation three years ago with support from Highmark Health, UPMC and other funders. The City of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority donated the lot for the property. The overall cost for the project is expected to be about $22 million, according to Linda Metropulos, the president of the board of nonprofit Second Avenue New Commons Inc. Additional funders include local foundations: the Hillman Foundation, R.K. Mellon Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.*

The facility will have a day program operated by Pittsburgh Mercy. Pittsburgh Mercy was chosen as the operator out of four applications that the DHS received in response to a request for proposals. 

The Commons is expected to meet a variety of needs. People off the street will be able to come in, get mail or take a shower. The top two floors are planned for 43 units of single-room occupancy housing for which occupants will sign leases. 

UPMC made a 10-year commitment to run a medical and behavioral health clinic in the building. There will also be a food program in the facility. 

“It’s a much broader engagement with the corporate and medical community,” Metropulos said. “It’s just an amazing project that demonstrates the best of Pittsburgh, how these various groups are coming together to create something that’s new for the most fragile residents of our community.”

One of the biggest puzzles for the facility’s operations remains the policies and procedures for engagement with Emergency Medical Services [EMS], police and the jail. 

One of the goals for Second Avenue Commons, as Metropulos put it, is “to make sure people are not hurting themselves, not hurting other people, being proactive and able to de-escalate situations that might arise.”

A working group of stakeholders, including funders, has been meeting every Tuesday afternoon since April. Recently, they met with the city police and, separately, with EMS. But the exact working relationships have not been worked out.

“We haven’t codified anything. We haven’t finalized those discussions, but we have all the right people at the table,” Metropulos said.

Yet, it is exactly those procedures and policies that will guide the accessibility of Second Avenue Commons and determine whether it’s able to build trust with people who are experiencing homelessness. With the current shelter providers straining to address growing needs, that process could go a long way to deciding whether a challenging summer gives way to a better sheltered fall.

*PublicSource receives funding from the Hillman Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Mila Sanina is an independent journalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at mila.sanina@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.

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Mila Sanina served from 2016-2021 as the executive director of PublicSource, a nonprofit, non-partisan newsroom delivering public-service journalism in the Pittsburgh region at publicsource.org. Under...