Three key takeaways from this story:
- Several weeks after Pittsburgh outlined an encampment clearance policy, Allegheny County shut down an overflow shelter with 40 beds.
- Criticism of the county’s closure of the Smithfield Street shelter led to the opening of alternative beds, but less than three months later the largest of those alternatives has closed.
- Pittsburgh Mercy and the county contend that shelter is available elsewhere.
Allegheny County closed an Uptown overflow shelter on Friday, about three months after it opened to accommodate homeless people who were staying at Downtown’s Smithfield Street shelter.
The county had said the overflow section of Second Avenue Commons would be available for up to six months. At 40 beds, it was the largest of several alternatives the county offered when it shuttered the Smithfield shelter June 21.
The Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter typically closes on March 15, but this year stayed open to buy the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] more time to find beds elsewhere. At least three alternatives were identified as places to accommodate some 145 people, which was the Smithfield shelter’s official capacity.
Second Avenue Commons first opened on Nov. 22, providing 95 permanent shelter beds — which remain in use — on top of the 40 emergency shelter beds.
In a statement provided in response to PublicSource’s questions, ACDHS said it “is focusing its leadership and staff resources on reducing time from shelter to more permanent housing. We have been able to create regular vacancies in our existing shelters, and we are offering people in the overflow available space in more permanent shelters (including elsewhere in Second Avenue Commons) and other housing options.”
Closing the overflow space “was just the consensus reached by us, DHS, and our community partners,” according to Emilee Howells, communications coordinator for Pittsburgh Mercy, which operates Second Avenue Commons.
She noted that the overflow shelter would reopen on Nov. 15 for the winter.
The other shelters that were able to add extra beds to accommodate the closure of Smithfield include Light of Life Rescue Mission and East End Cooperative Ministries, each of which provided an extra 20 beds.
A spokesperson for Light of Life said that demand varies each night but typically 17 to 20 of those beds are occupied.
The East End shelter regularly hits its maximum capacity of 20 people at their overflow space, according to Michael Bartley, vice president of development and public relations.
The Downtown area also includes Wood Street Commons, a 32-bed shelter run by Community Human Services. The intake operator said on Friday that the shelter did not have any available beds.
On the night before the Second Avenue Commons overflow shelter closed, Ron waited by the entrance to spend the night there one last time. Ron’s full name isn’t being shared upon his request. He said that he had spent the last two months at the shelter and didn’t know what he would do the next day.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “I’m going to be walking on the streets [tomorrow] and then what? Cops going to arrest me. I might as well go across the street [to the nearby Allegheny County Jail] and turn myself in.”
While Ron spoke, a couple approached and asked for help finding a shelter to spend the night. Advised to check out Second Avenue Commons’ overflow shelter, the couple went to inquire about staying but returned shortly after saying the shelter wouldn’t accept them.
The occupancy numbers of the overflow shelter weren’t shared with PublicSource in time for publication.
ACDHS’ online data dashboard indicated that on Thursday there were 363 single adults in emergency shelters countywide, and 382 people who were part of households with children. That’s up from 334 single adults and 252 members of households with children on June 21, when the Smithfield shelter closed.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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