Update (11/9/23): Allegheny County announced that it has partnered with the City of Pittsburgh on a severe weather action plan for winter’s “harshest nights,” which the county later described as “extreme temperatures or dangerous precipitation.” If the roughly 370 year-round shelter beds and 80 overflow beds reach capacity, or if a shelter must be closed due to a utilities issue, “an emergency facility will be activated, and individuals showing up at Second Avenue Commons will be transported to the emergency location,” according to a county press release.
The release did not specify the location of the emergency facility, but the county later indicated that it would not be the Smithfield United Church of Christ.
“Our work is not done, but I’m really pleased that our work with partners to open Second Avenue Commons, and our collaboration with other providers to increase year-long and overflow capacity has allowed us to serve even more people,” county Department of Human Services Director Erin Dalton said in a press release. “No one should stay outside when the weather is extremely dangerous.”
“Because of these efforts, we expect to be able to accommodate over 450 individuals by the start of winter, should we need that capacity.”
Shelter locations and contact information are here connect.alleghenycounty.us.
As Pittsburgh moves to clear tents, county opts not to reopen Downtown winter shelter
Reported 11/9/23: A Downtown church that usually shelters hundreds of people will no longer be used as an emergency winter shelter, and no alternative has been identified, an internal county memo confirms. The lack of new shelter options from Allegheny County comes as Pittsburgh moves to evict an encampment of around 12 people.
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] announced to providers on Monday that the annual Emergency Winter Shelter will not be opening at the Smithfield United Church of Christ, ending a decades-long arrangement.
The message outlines that the county is looking for an all-year shelter with 24/7 access “but we aren’t there yet.” The message also claims that the county has increased the number of year-round shelter beds from 232 in 2021 to 377 beds currently.
Since Oct. 4 PublicSource has repeatedly asked ACDHS to detail plans for a winter shelter, which the county usually opens on Nov. 15. ACDHS has not provided details.
The rise in beds accompanies a rise in the number of homeless people living in the county. According to the Allegheny County Analytics dashboard, the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness doubled from 2021 to 2022 and then plateaued.
During the week of Nov. 5, there were 223 people counted experiencing unsheltered homelessness, up from 104 at the same time two years ago, according to an online dashboard provided by ACDHS.
The county’s decision comes nearly a year after the $22 million dollar Second Avenue Commons shelter opened, initially to replace the Smithfield shelter. But due to unexpectedly high need for shelter services, the county opted to open the Smithfield shelter last year, and it was operated by Team PSBG until ACDHS closed it on June 21, well past its traditional operating timeframe.
“There has been radio silence from [ACDHS Director] Erin [Dalton] and DHS for the last two months,” said Jon Colburn, the parish’s administrator. “I’ve asked, ‘Will the shelter open at Smithfield [Street] Church?’ Crickets and chirps, all I got.”
Colburn said that last year when the county chose the church to host the shelter they gave Colburn a 72-hour notice.
“We’re not opposed to housing the shelter,” Colburn said. “There is nothing I’ve seen or heard that says there is a place for the 140 people who were at the Smithfield shelter nightly last season. We have the space, so we would listen to a request, but we can’t do it ourselves.”
Closing of legacy shelter limits Downtown access
“For at least the past 25 years we’ve had what started out as the Cold Winter Emergency Shelter,” Colburn said, noting that initially the cold weather initiative opened only on nights that dropped below 25 degrees between Nov. 15 and March 15.
Colburn said that about 10 years ago the county expanded shelter services to every night within that time frame. Earlier this year that period expanded, at first indefinitely, and then until June 21.
As the shelter operated into the summer, Downtown stakeholders urged closure.
The county’s decision not to open the Smithfield shelter severs one Downtown connection in the Continuum of Care – a federal requirement intended to provide people with care in various stages of need. Locally, many services are available Downtown, and the advocates have said the absence of the Smithfield shelter could compromise access for some unhoused people.
Policy meets reality
At the same time, the city is using its new encampment eviction policy to remove a number of people who have been sleeping in tents hugging a cement berm on First Avenue off the Boulevard of the Allies.
Under city policy, people staying at encampment sites targeted for removal will be given at least seven days’ notice before they have to pack up, except in emergencies. In this case, posts went up on Nov. 1 with a clearance date of Nov. 7, according to media reports.
“The city has made the decision to decommission this encampment for a variety of factors, most notably the ability to make offers of housing for the estimated seven to nine individuals who live there, as well as over safety concerns for the residents of the encampment,” Olga George, Mayor Ed Gainey’s press secretary, told PublicSource.
“Staff from the Office of Community Health and Safety, Social Workers, ROOTS [Reaching Out on the Streets] team members, and community partners have been meeting regularly with the residents of the First Avenue encampment over the past three to four months, and nearly every day over the past couple of weeks.”
Scenes from the shutdown of the First Avenue encampment in downtown Pittsburgh. At top right, City of Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt talks with community organizers from the Thomas Merton Center and Food Not Bombs, and Ben Talik, program manager with ROOTS [Reaching Out on the Streets] at the site of an encampment along First Avenue by Boulevard of the Allies on Nov. 7. The city planned to close the encampment by 5 p.m. that day, but pushed back 24 hours to buy more time to place people in alternative shelter. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
George also said the city’s actions “are not a law enforcement activity, and our first and foremost responsibility is to care for some of the most vulnerable residents in our city with compassion.”
“This narrative of we’re closing this encampment because it’s violent – c’mon, being unhoused is violent,” said Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County councilperson at-large. “Displacing people, and putting them out in the cold and the rain, is violent. When we get reports of the first person sleeping outside dying of exposure to the elements, that blood will be on all those folks’ hands who facilitated removing these people from and closing the only shelter that they had.”
On Tuesday, workers from the city’s ROOTS program began the process of finding alternative shelter for people at the encampment.
On Wednesday morning, residents continued to pack their belongings and decide on their next steps. An arrest of one of the people who had been staying at the camp that morning slowed progress as tension flared.
Muhammad Ali Nasir, also known by his emcee name MAN-E, spoke at the targeted encampment where his organization was passing out food and offering transportation. Nasir is a cofounder of mutual aid and street outreach group Community Care & Resistance In Pittsburgh and the advocacy, policy and civic engagement coordinator for 1Hood.
“I think it’s a serious mistake not to open Smithfield,” said Nasir. “They’re trying to get folks outside of Downtown. That presents an issue for us outreach workers who can better serve people when they’re consolidated. These folks form communities and they look out for each other, especially people who use opioids. There’s safety in communities. Right now communities are actively being disrupted.”
As rain fell on what remained of the camp on Thursday morning, activists and outreach teams started to arrive in anticipation of the arrival of DPW trucks for clean up. A former camp member sifted through the collected bags of garbage for food. ROOTS program manager Ben Talik checked the last standing tent for people.
If not here, where? Shelter space limited
ACDHS identified at least three alternative shelter spaces to accommodate the closure of Smithfield shelter but the majority reported at or near full capacity.
Light of Life Rescue Mission, on the North Shore, provides 20 overflow beds to accommodate the county’s decision to close the Smithfield Street shelter earlier this year. Those beds are at or near capacity most nights.
“Every night is different — sometimes we have 17 beds (out of the 20 overflow) filled and other nights we have 18, 19 or are completely maxing out at the 20 overflow beds. It just varies each day depending on how many walk through our doors,” said Annie Cairns, Light of Life’s senior marketing and communications manager, in September.
Similarly, East End Cooperative Ministries in East Liberty provides 20 overflow beds and since the middle of September those beds have been filled every night.
Second Avenue Commons’ shelter operator Pittsburgh Mercy declined twice to share any information regarding their overflow shelter plans. An Allegheny Links operator told PublicSource that Second Avenue Commons didn’t report any vacancies on Wednesday.
The 95-bed shelter operates year-round but there is also overflow capacity for an additional 40 beds. In September, the county opted to shut down the 40-bed overflow space after about three months of operation, during which it accommodated unhoused people who had been staying at the Smithfield shelter.
Second Avenue Commons also has a single room occupancy section that is operated by a contractor, rather than by Pittsburgh Mercy.
Another shelter, Wood Street Commons, Downtown, includes a 32-bed shelter run by Community Human Services. An Allegheny Links operator said people can only stay at Wood Street Commons if they’re there referred by a street outreach team.
Cairns said Light of Life has seen “changes in our homeless community” that include “a significant increase of the women and children and seniors that are walking through our doors.”
She attributed those changes to evictions, food insecurity, domestic violence and a deficit in available housing in the city of Pittsburgh.
She predicted that many shelters will be “completely full for the winter” due to the closure of the Smithfield shelter. “So we’ve got to come up with something,” she added.
“What already felt like a bad situation feels so much worse with the back and forth on the deadline for these guys to be gone,” said Russell Beyer, 44, on Wednesday, while taking a break from serving pizza and coffee to people at the targeted camp. Beyer said he is currently staying at Second Avenue Commons.
“First it was yesterday, then they moved it to today – graciously or not,” he said of the camp’s impending decommissioning. “And while most of the people have been offered opportunities of a place to go, you know, it’s still the unknown.”
Beyer said that moving people from one place to another doesn’t address the underlying problems that many people are dealing with.
“You want to see movement and you want to see these people obtaining their own living situation, but they’re not,” he said. “And now you’re telling them they can’t tent here. . . . It’s just this shuffling. You’re moving them from here to here to here to here.
“Are we addressing the root of the issues? Are we really making their lives better or are we just continuing to move the pieces around the board in this game of musical chairs?”
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
Venuri Siriwardane contributed.
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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.