Jamar plopped a chessboard atop his red charcoal grill on a March morning as he sat across the street from Smithfield United Church of Christ, just minutes after ambulances sped down the street. He spent the previous night at the church’s shelter, and as people trickled out of the building that morning, another shelter client lay in a nearby intersection with his face bleeding and shoes strewn behind him.
In the aftermath of chaos, he focused on the board in front of him, daring an opponent to challenge him to a match.
“Chess is the game of life,” he said. “Your wit is the only weapon that will never fail you.”
PublicSource is withholding Jamar’s legal name, and those of other people experiencing homelessness, where identification could likely result in negative consequences.
Jamar frequently stays at Smithfield, alongside his friends. In the mornings, he cleans a nearby alley, picking up garbage and pouring bleach on the spots where people urinate. In the afternoons, he heads to the North Side, where he cooks his own skillet recipes and throws hot dogs on the grill for anyone who stops by.
Staying at Smithfield, he said, is a “blessing.”
“They don’t care about your cigarettes or anything like that,” he said. “They don’t care what you’re doing. They will save you regardless. They will treat you right.”
The venerable Smithfield winter shelter is one of two “low-barrier” facilities — now joined by Second Avenue Commons — that opened in Pittsburgh this winter to provide people experiencing homelessness with warm spaces to sleep without cumbersome entry requirements, like sobriety or identification.
Both facilities reflect an unprecedented effort to address the results of the housing crisis, but the county’s first winter with two low-barrier shelters revealed important differences in the shelter operators’ models and approaches. For those who rely on them, the new array of choices — Smithfield and Second Avenue Commons — spurred discussion of values and tradeoffs compared to tent encampments: autonomy versus safety, warmth against possessions, communities of choice or the social conflicts inherent in congregate settings.
Second Avenue Commons added both shelter capacity and new concerns.
Emails from several Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] employees — who were paid to fill in at Second Avenue Commons during a cold snap in late December — illustrate the challenges of low-barrier housing and county concerns with operator Pittsburgh Mercy’s approach. The emails describe security issues, including lack of leadership and bedbugs, among other problems about a month into the shelter’s operations.
“DHS staff were left feeling really concerned about what they observed: Mercy staff preparedness and competency, staff feeling burned out, and safety,” wrote Andy Halfhill, administrator of Homeless Services for DHS, in an email to Pittsburgh Mercy leadership staff, summarizing experiences of about eight DHS staff members.
How Pittsburgh ended up with two low-barrier shelters
Housing stakeholders say the “low-barrier” philosophy exists on a spectrum, along which providers seek to reduce or — in some advocates’ views — entirely remove requirements for entry.
One man who spent time at the Smithfield shelter before moving to another low-barrier shelter at McKeesport Downtown Housing welcomed the availability of a haven with few hurdles.
“At the end of the day, the more barriers you put up is really just a barrier between potentially life-saving access and death,” said Colt.
If there had been barriers to entering the Smithfield or McKeesport shelters — like providing identification he didn’t then have or filling out a questionnaire — then “I’d just be a guy with less of a nose now because of frostbite.”
The human services system is set up to serve people with significant problems, from physical or mental disabilities and substance use disorders to criminal histories, notes Christina Farmartino, director of housing for Community Human Services Corp., a Strip District-based nonprofit that serves some clients in shelters. But Farmartino, who operated a shelter for eight years, said that when it comes to housing, the same behaviors that make someone eligible can get them barred.
“We’re welcoming these people in based on those qualifications and then we’re evicting them for the manifestation of what that looks like,” she said.
The idea for creating a year-round, low-barrier shelter in Allegheny County originated within a strategic plan crafted by the county’s Homeless Advisory Board [HAB] in 2017. Such a shelter, HAB envisioned, would serve all people — including people using alcohol or other substances — as long as they aren’t endangering themselves or others.
In the years since the release of HAB’s plan, the need for housing services has reached dire levels, said Aubrey Plesh, the founder and lead advocate of Team PSBG, which operates low-barrier shelters at the Smithfield church and McKeesport Downtown Housing.
“Nobody predicted a pandemic, nobody predicted loads of money for eviction prevention,” Plesh said, listing factors that altered the availability of housing. These unpredictable factors, she added, “put us in a position to have an increase in what meets the federal definition of homeless, even just displacement.”
That unforeseen need set the stage for the emergence of two shelters, both of which committed to exploring the low-barrier philosophy even with the challenges of its application.
The City of Pittsburgh in 2020 announced plans for creating Second Avenue Commons, branding it as a “first-of-its-kind” shelter for adults — and their pets — seeking housing. The facility would offer 95 beds year-round, along with 43 single-room occupancy units [SROs], an overflow shelter during the winter and wrap-around services including a health clinic.
“The idea was really that the agencies would provide this continuum of care, so someone who was experiencing homelessness would be able to get most of what they need in one facility,” said Linda Metropulos, the president of Second Avenue Commons’ board.
Second Avenue Commons subscribes to the “Housing First” model, which posits that people must have housing and other basic necessities before they can begin working through the circumstances perpetuating chronic homelessness. Pittsburgh Mercy offers to connect clients with wrap-around services for finding employment opportunities, healthcare providers and permanent housing options.
Second Avenue Commons was originally slated to open in January 2022, but experienced delays attributed to supply chain issues. When the shelter still hadn’t opened by Nov. 15, DHS opened a seasonal low-barrier shelter at Smithfield, a longtime winter accommodation for people experiencing homelessness that had been slated for phaseout in light of the opening of Second Avenue Commons.
“I think DHS is taking big strides in attempting to give truly low-barrier service in Allegheny County, and we’re the example of that,” Plesh said.
Second Avenue Commons officially opened on Nov. 22, but the county opted to continue operating the Smithfield shelter because demand for its services remained high.
The main area at the Smithfield Unified Church of Christ shelter on the early morning of Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Downtown. This main room (photo 1) is intended for male-identified people, with a few spots reserved for couples if there’s room to accommodate. Yoga mats and cots in an adjacent annex serve as overflow for the main room (photo 2), and rooms to the left and up the stairs are held for female-identified guests (photo 3). (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Where Second Avenue Commons was designed to be a housing nexus, Plesh said Smithfield more resembles a “FEMA camp.”
She continued, “Everybody is offered the same thing as a hurricane survivor: cot, lukewarm water for a shower and a TV dinner. I’ve been saying that since the day we opened.”
Plesh said that Team PSBG doesn’t subscribe to the Housing First model. “This is heads in beds,” she continued. “This is overflow so people don’t freeze to death.”
Although Smithfield was originally slated to close on March 15, Plesh said it will remain open indefinitely.
Update (3/15/23): In a press release Wednesday afternoon, Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services announced it is working with Pittsburgh Mercy to reduce the number of clients at Second Avenue Commons’ overflow shelter and “expects the overflow capacity to close this week.
Second Avenue Commons: from amnesty lockers to 911 calls
Listening to music with a single earbud, Thor waited outside the entrance of Second Avenue Commons in Pittsburgh’s Uptown, motorcycle engines booming from the Crosstown Boulevard above. PublicSource is withholding Thor’s legal name.
On that late-February afternoon, he had just completed the shelter’s intake form in an effort to find permanent housing, a decision he’d been mulling for some time.
“Wherever I roam is home,” he said. “So am I really homeless?”
Thor shows the inside of a tent where he stashed a rose for a potential romantic interest of his, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, in Downtown. His decision on where to stay a particular night is often driven by his romantic and platonic relationships with the people in his street community. In the other photos, he walks to take in some of his favorite views on the city’s rivers. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Thor prefers living mostly in his tent facing the water, spending occasional nights at other shelters with his “street family.”
His street family spent the last few nights at the Smithfield shelter. But another guest slammed his head into a pole as he left Smithfield earlier that morning, sending his signature viking hat flying toward the street.
After that encounter, Thor felt ready to fill out the form at Second Avenue Commons.
When Pittsburgh Mercy applied to run Second Avenue Commons’ low-barrier shelter and daytime engagement center in June 2021, the nonprofit agency envisioned creating a space where “everyone is welcome.”
“We want people to be comfortable in this setting, feel valued, be seen and heard,” Pittsburgh Mercy’s team wrote in their proposal. “Our goal is to create a space in which individuals can easily access support and services on their own terms.”
At Second Avenue Commons, couples are permitted to stay together. Clients with substance use disorders are not required to be in recovery. Amnesty lockers are provided just past the facility’s front desk for clients to store any belongings — including weapons and substances — not permitted inside.
Over the past three months of operations, Pittsburgh Mercy’s vision for Second Avenue Commons hasn’t always panned out as imagined, especially in the early weeks of operation.
Metropulos said the facility’s opening “wasn’t perfect” and the building had “growing pains” to work through. Due to the acute need for housing and the city’s planned eviction of a North Side encampment — which occurred in December — the facility opened without a chance for her team to test out the building.
“We did it because people were outside, and it was freezing weather, and we were working to be collaborative with the city and county,” she said.
In internal emails sent in late December and early January, DHS employees noted several concerns about the lack of safety policies in place as they helped to shore up Pittsburgh Mercy’s staffing at Second Avenue Commons. DHS employees wrote that there were no protocols for addressing theft inside the building, complained of unexpected absences of security guards and said they were asked to confiscate clients’ weapons themselves.
One observed that residents of the SRO units were not searched upon entrance or required to use amnesty lockers, so some would meet shelter residents in the facility’s elevators — where there were no cameras — to give them contraband items.
Another DHS employee wrote that a security guard gave them a “wand” to search clients as they entered Second Avenue Commons, then left. “We called her to come back [down] once, we didn’t see her the rest of the evening.”
A DHS employee wrote that a social worker at Second Avenue Commons told them that the shelter “doesn’t have enough security and it’s not a safe environment for the staff. There have been fights, she’s been chased out of the building by clients, etc. … It sounded pretty bad.”
Responding to these concerns internally, Allegheny Link Program Manager Andrea Bustos wrote, “This is deeply concerning. The shelter staffing and lack of process is out of control and sounds quite dangerous/unsafe.”
Halfhill wrote “there won’t be an easy fix” to improving safety at Second Avenue Commons. He added that “[Pittsburgh Mercy] has a LONG way to go. They asked for our help and for two police officers. We provided those resources but Mercy was not prepared to use these resources adequately.”
In response to PublicSource’s inquiries, DHS said that some of these issues “were attributed to the DHS staff not being familiar with the operations of the shelter” and not having previous experience at such facilities, resulting in a “misunderstanding.”
Since then, the department indicated that it has held weekly meetings with Pittsburgh Mercy staff to work on the problems raised by DHS staff.
DHS added that Pittsburgh Mercy has “essentially resolved” all building challenges, and is moving forward with hiring a senior manager for the facility and a second team supervisor. They also plan to have a police officer work on site overnight in the near future “while maintaining the low-barrier shelter model.”
Justin Kunie has stayed at Second Avenue Commons since January when he and his partner moved to Pittsburgh from Florida. He said that staying at the shelter has given him the stability to begin creating a new life for himself here, including starting a new retail job Downtown.
“This isn’t a permanent place, it’s just a stepping stone to get back on your feet, and it’s up to you to make that step,” he said. “We were working with the staff to get the resources we needed, and then we took it from there.”
Kunie’s partner has especially enjoyed working on paintings at Second Avenue Commons.
Julia Lam, an occupational therapy doctoral student from the University of Pittsburgh, leads self-care and creative expression groups to positively engage shelter clients.
Lam observed that tensions can rise in the facility’s daytime drop-in center, and lack of activity can lead to boredom or arguments.
“During the activities, we have valuable conversations about all areas of life such as their job search, coping skills and housing challenges,” said Lam. “On the surface level, it may look like we are just doing crafts, but they are opening up in a collaborative and meaningful way. These therapeutic activities positively change the atmosphere of the drop-in center.”
No barriers, but ‘no-fly list?’
While the term “low-barrier” includes an acceptance of behavioral health problems, Pittsburgh Mercy does not permit clients to use substances inside the facility. PublicSource asked Pittsburgh Mercy officials whether people who violate that rule are barred from Second Avenue Commons, but did not receive a response.
Farmartino said shelters typically have what she calls “the no-fly list” of people who aren’t allowed to return. “I just feel like ideally that list would be as small as possible,” she said. “What people don’t realize is the cost to the system multiplies significantly when people don’t have access to affordable housing.”
She added that when providers bar people from shelters “they face the difficult situation of one person losing their home versus potentially jeopardizing the health and safety of the entire program and its participants.”
Drug use presents particularly thorny issues.
In August, prior to the opening of Second Avenue Commons, Pittsburgh Mercy Vice President Michael Turk said in an interview that clients “are at various stages of their own recovery. If that stuff makes it to the shelter floor, it not only impacts the individuals who might be using it, that affects everybody around them.”
From Second Avenue Commons’ opening through January, police responded to 13 incidents involving overdoses or intoxication at the facility.
“That place is so totally inappropriate for people who want to get on their feet because it’s nothing but a threshold for drug use,” said Mike, who lives in one of Second Avenue Commons’ SRO units.
Intended to help people adjust to having their own space, Second Avenue Commons’ SROs are located on the building’s fourth and fifth floors, with clients signing for rooms that typically have around 125 square feet of space.
When Mike moved into his SRO unit last November he was among the first clients to enter Second Avenue Commons. Over the past three months, he said he’s experienced several assaults and death threats from shelter residents.
He nearly tried to move out of his SRO in the middle of a drizzly mid-February night, but opted to stay after speaking with his case manager and receiving kind treatment from the facility’s staff. But there have still been problems.
“It’s one thing after another,” he added. “Someone overdoses. Someone lights a candle, which [sets] off the smoke detectors and the police have to come and clear the building out several times a day.”
County 911 logs show that firefighters responded to 17 fire alarms and 30 medical emergencies at Second Avenue Commons from when the low-barrier shelter opened on Nov. 22 through the end of January. Police responded to 103 incidents at Second Avenue Commons during this period, most often involving disorderly conduct, assault and welfare checks.
Smithfield: lower barriers, high stress
Team PSBG took over operation of the Smithfield shelter on Nov. 22, given just four days to grab the reins from interim managers.
Plesh said Team PSBG’s understanding of what it means to be low-barrier revolves around the belief that all people are fundamentally entitled to receive shelter.
“Anybody who shows up at Smithfield and says, ‘I want to come in,’ we have a job to keep them from being outside — at any cost,” Plesh said. Smithfield’s fire code enables them to accommodate 145 people per night. “If Team PSBG gets to a point where we don’t have space, it’s still my job to find a place for them to go.”
Team PSBG operates Smithfield using a set of community guidelines, rather than black-and-white rules. Couples stay together in side-by-side cots whenever possible.
Following a harm reduction model, Team PSBG doesn’t require its Smithfield clients to maintain sobriety. Harm reduction is an approach grounded in minimizing the negative consequences of using substances, seeking to connect people to resources for recovery and prevent outcomes like overdosing.
“Harm reduction in terms of Smithfield is giving people a safe place to lay their head and providing the safety they need to live as they choose,” Plesh added.
Demand for Smithfield has been high. “Higher than anyone expected,” Plesh said, and she isn’t entirely sure why.
Jamar has never stayed at Second Avenue Commons because he prefers the “freedom” of staying at Smithfield. “Why go up there [to Second Avenue Commons] where there’s more rules doing the same thing, when you can come down here [to Smithfield] where there’s less rules.”
Although Smithfield’s minimal rules draw people in, that also exacerbates security challenges at the shelter.
Plesh said staying at Smithfield is like going to the Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin: “It’s at your own risk.”
When clients have property stolen, Team PSBG doesn’t intervene or call 911, unless the guest insists on involving police. Staff receives training in de-escalation techniques to help defuse conflicts before they erupt into physical fights. “Sometimes it’s as easy as just separating people,” Plesh added. “Sometimes it’s as easy as, ‘Go out and have a smoke, come back in and cool down.’ Extra meal. Anything.”
Each time Thor stays at Smithfield, his friends watch over each other’s belongings when they go to line up for the bathroom because, he said, “it could all be gone when you come back.”
For Thor, the decision to seek permanent housing again is far from easy. He lived in an apartment up until last September, and it made him feel “bound” because his rent cost half his typical paycheck.
“I felt like when I had a place I was merely existing,” he added. “I didn’t feel like I was truly living.”
As February closed, Thor bounced between his tent and Smithfield — alternately drawn to and driven from the facility by his relationships with the other residents there — with hopes to one day have a place of his own, even an SRO in Second Avenue Commons. He knows that neither his tent, nor Smithfield, are long-term solutions.
But they’ll suffice for now if it means he gets to be with his street family Downtown.
“One way or another,” he said, “we’re making it down here.”
Correction (3/9/23): Comments about inadequate security and fights at Second Avenue Commons in December were attributed to a social worker. An earlier version of this story indicated that they were attributed to a member of a different profession.
Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ameliawinger.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with PublicSource who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @stephstrasburg.
This story was fact-checked by Jack Troy.
This reporting has been made possible through the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
Reporting on homelessness requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm, avoiding retraumatization and respecting privacy and agency.
In preparation for this story, PublicSource journalists reviewed resources including Street Sense Media’s guide to reporting on homelessness. To sum up Street Sense Media’s guidelines, we sought to give people living in shelters or tents the same respect we would give sources who live in stable housing.
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