After three years of planning and construction, the Second Avenue Commons facility, in Downtown, is slated to open at the beginning of October, providing services like a health clinic and day program for adults experiencing homelessness across Allegheny County. 

Planning for the five-story facility began in 2019, helmed by PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation along with partners including Highmark Health and UPMC. Earlier this summer, the facility’s operators announced intentions to open the shelter in mid-September, but that has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues. 

The facility is Allegheny County’s first “low-barrier” shelter and will offer 95 beds year-round, with up to an additional 40 available in the winter. The shelter will aim to assist any adult seeking housing, including people in relationships, people with pets and people actively using drugs.

“There’s so many factors that lead to homelessness, and our goal is always to meet people where they are, judgment free,” said Michael Turk, vice president of community and wellness services for Pittsburgh Mercy, the shelter’s operator. “We’re here to help.”

The shelter’s operators particularly want to serve people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. They recognize that the decision to become sober often hinges upon having access to housing and, while prohibiting substance use within the facility, they won’t conduct searches and will provide “amnesty lockers” for possessions that aren’t allowed inside.

Construction continues on the Second Avenue Commons , Downtown Pittsburgh.(Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The county’s Department of Human Services selected Pittsburgh Mercy as the shelter’s operator after soliciting proposals in April 2021. A community health and wellness provider, the organization has previous experience operating homeless services like the Winter Shelter and Operation Safety Net, an outreach team that provides basic medical care and necessities to people experiencing homelessness. 

Across Allegheny County, 880 people were experiencing homelessness as of the county’s most recent point-in-time count

Balancing safety with access

Housing activists support the low-barrier philosophy because they recognize that people must first have stable shelter before beginning to tackle the underlying issues perpetuating homelessness, including mental health conditions and poverty.

Sobriety requirements are one of the biggest forces deterring people experiencing homelessness from using shelters. To address this barrier, the Second Avenue Commons will grant access to anyone actively using drugs and alcohol. 

However, the shelter will ask guests to leave the premises to use substances. 

“People are at various stages of their own recovery, so if that stuff makes it to the shelter floor, it not only impacts the individual who might be using it, it affects everybody around them,” Turk said. “Nothing happens in a vacuum.”

Following harm reduction principles, the shelter will be equipped with Narcan, a medicine that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

Guests will not be required to participate in sobriety programs. The shelter’s staff will include housing, diversion and recovery support specialists who can connect guests to the services that best match their needs.

“Recovery is personal to them, and they have to decide when the time is that they want to start working on it,” Turk said. “But hopefully as they build a relationship with our staff, and we are able to really have some deep conversations about what’s going on with them, we can eventually connect them.”

Amnesty lockers will be located near the shelter’s doors for guests to store possessions, including drugs and alcohol, before entering. The policy ensures that guests’ property is protected, even if it is not permitted on the premises.

Construction continues on Second Avenue Commons, which will be Pittsburgh’s first low-barrier shelter, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Enforcement of the shelter’s substance-use ban will rely on an honor system — people will not be searched for prohibited items. Guests will only be asked to leave the shelter if they pose a threat to the safety of themselves or others. 

Second Avenue Commons will also have a “warm handoff” room on its first floor where emergency medical services can bring people who may want to stay at the shelter. Shelter officials will conduct an assessment to determine if they can offer services that fit the person’s needs or if the person should be brought to a higher level of care, like a hospital or acute psychiatric facility. 

Meeting people where they are

One of Pittsburgh Mercy’s greatest challenges with creating policies for the shelter has been prioritizing guests’ safety without creating over-the-top rules. 

“Rules should be simple. They should be sensible and reasonable, something that everybody will follow,” Turk said. “You’re not just looking out for your staff, you’re making sure this is a nice place to be.”

Nationwide, there isn’t a universal definition of “low barrier,” so Pittsburgh Mercy has studied the policies at other low-barrier shelters across the country to prepare for crafting its own, including meeting with City Care Night Shelter in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Do Good Multnomah, a nonprofit that operates low-barrier shelters in Portland, Oregon.

A group of service providers, county officials and advocates has met weekly since April to identify what “low barrier” will mean for the Second Avenue Commons, hoping it’ll lean on the less stringent end of the spectrum.

The shelter will be open 24/7, and although its doors will be locked during evening hours, its staff will buzz in people seeking entrance. Beyond round-the-clock access, the backbone of the shelter’s interpretation of “low barrier” is its openness toward partners, pets and possessions. 

While other shelters can require couples to live in different facilities due to gender separation policies or capacity limitations, the Second Avenue Commons is hopeful that keeping partners together will improve the likelihood that people will use their services. Research shows that people experiencing homelessness can view their partners as a source of positive motivation. 

The shelter can only accommodate adults, so couples with children will be directed to one of the county’s family shelters.

Unlike some of the county’s other shelters, the Second Avenue Commons will let people bring pets. Shelters can prohibit guests from owning pets for a grab bag of reasons, including health code mandates, allergy accommodations and concerns about property damage. Although these policies are intended to promote guests’ safety, they can inadvertently pose a significant barrier to access, given that as many as 25% of people experiencing homelessness own pets, according to research from Seattle University.

Upon entering the shelter, pets will be bathed — to guarantee they’re pest-free — and quarantined with their owners until the shelter can ensure the animal’s vaccination status is up to date. When pets aren’t in a crate, owners will be required to keep them on a leash. The shelter will also provide donated items to assist owners in caring for their pets along with helping them connect with veterinary services.

The shelter has met with focus groups of people experiencing homelessness to gather perspectives on the wellness, spirituality and entertainment programs it plans to offer at its drop-in center, primarily on weekends. Once the shelter opens, Pittsburgh Mercy will convene a leadership group among the shelter’s guests, which will meet monthly with the staff to discuss improvements to its services. 

“It’s a true back-and-forth partnership,” Turk said, “because there’s no sense of having that group if you’re not going to let them have a strong voice and actually take what they’re saying to heart.”

Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at amelia@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Amelia Winger is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She is telling solutions-oriented stories that combine human experiences with broader context about data and policies....