After a lengthy hearing that revealed little common ground, Allegheny County Council members have introduced motions on their Tuesday agenda to explore other options to address the county’s shelter shortage.
Between the hammering gavel, threats from sheriff’s deputies to kick people out and jeers and whoops, a consensus emerged at a Thursday night hearing on the closing of a Downtown shelter: That the neighborhood needs more bathrooms and hygiene stations.
A group representing Downtown business interests — cross-legged and adorned in gray suits — sat in the front row of the Allegheny County Courthouse’s Gold Room for the county council hearing. Behind them sat a group of homeless guests from the Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter. To their left sat a group wearing shirts and pins proclaiming their support of socialism.
While the meeting ended without agreement on basic facts like the capacity of existing and planned shelters, all agreed that spaces need to be created Downtown for people to use the bathroom and clean themselves up. Ideas ranged from more portable outhouses to hand- and body-washing stations.
After the meeting, council members introduced motions to their Tuesday agenda to explore other options to address the county’s shelter situation.
The decisions that divided Downtown
The tense hearing emerged from an Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] announcement, on June 9, of the closure of the Smithfield shelter on June 21. The meeting largely revolved around disputes over whether the shelter should stay open, how many shelter guests will need to be relocated and how many beds the county will be able to replace.
Bethany Hallam, council representative at-large, called for the hearing to gather public comment and official answers about the controversial closing. She used the meeting to elicit endorsements and promises of support from business leaders to help install spaces Downtown that could help people improve basic cleanliness.
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a push by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide better facilities for homeless people.
There was far less common ground, though, than disagreement, including among government officials.
Several council members, including Hallam, said that they had not been aware of the plans to close the shelter and had not been part of discussions leading up to the decision. Lisa Frank, the city’s chief operating and administrative officer, told council, “we were not in the room when that decision was made” to close the shelter.
Hallam warned business owners that when the shelter closes down next week, former shelter guests will turn to sleeping on the Downtown streets. “They’ll instead be in front of your businesses.”
Numbers of unhoused, and beds, disputed
Jennifer Liptak, chief of staff for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said it is challenging to find new spaces to host shelters. She said that the county decided to keep the Smithfield shelter open past its usual March 15 closure because they wanted to buy more time to find additional shelter space elsewhere.
Liptak would not directly answer Hallam’s question about why ACDHS chose June 20 as the last night of shelter operations.
“We will never solve homelessness,” Liptak said, as members of the audience booed. “I won’t get into a back and forth over the decision to close it.”
Andrew Halfhill, ACDHS’ administrator of homeless services, said that the county identified 125 people who are “frequent users” of the shelter. Out of the 125, Halfhill said they made alternative shelter offers to 80 people and 60 of those people had already transitioned to other shelters.
Aubrey Plesh of Smithfield shelter operator Team PSBG, though, has said that 600 individuals used the shelter over a recent 30-day period.
Several dozen shelter guests attended the council meeting, the majority of whom testified that they didn’t have alternative shelter options and urged ACDHS to keep the shelter open.
One guest, who identified herself to council only as Monica, said that Team PSBG was saving people’s lives regularly at the shelter by helping guests who overdose.
“Everyone who OD’d there, they brought back to life,” Monica said. “If we didn’t have this you’d find people OD’d everywhere.”
Maddy McGrady of Friendship said she has worked in social services for more than six years.
“First of all, I need to reiterate to you that the other shelters besides Smithfield shelter do not have space,” she said. “Allegheny County DHS knows this, and I know this, because every single day DHS sends out an email report to all of its contracted providers showing that the shelters have zero vacancies. So I would just advise you to be very skeptical of this pitch that there is space elsewhere.”
Other shelter workers echoed that but asked that their names not be published out of fear of employer retaliation.
Several shelter guests said they settled on Smithfield after getting kicked out of Second Avenue Commons, another shelter just outside of Downtown that opened in November.
One guest, Raymond Bernard, said he previously stayed at Light of Life Rescue Mission and Second Avenue Commons, from which he said he was kicked out, and has not been offered an alternative to Smithfield.
Will Homewood beds open in time?
Halfhill told council members that ACDHS was “working on a couple of fronts” to create additional shelter space to accommodate those persons displaced from Smithfield.
Halfhill noted that a “new shelter” was opening in Homewood that would provide 32 beds, and that the units would be open by June 19.
But the operator of the Homewood location, Unity Recovery’s Robert Ashford, told PublicSource in an interview that the location is not a public shelter. Instead, it is single-room occupancy, or SRO, housing.
“It’s closer to emergency or transitional housing — it’s not a congregate shelter,” Ashford said.
The new SRO, called CommUNITY Place, will begin operating out of the old Holy Rosary Convent building on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood. Unlike the Smithfield shelter, the new SRO accepts only those who have been referred by the county and “desire to exit homelessness,” Ashford said.
Ashford said the new SRO will not be fully operational until early July. Half of the SRO’s occupancy will be open by June 21, but Unity Recovery is still waiting on a shipment of beds to reach full capacity.
“The SRO is not going to solve the problem,” he said. “The city and the county need to invest in a lot more housing and shelter options. I think we all know that.”
However, Ashford credited the county for pushing the new SRO along quickly. After being approached by the county late last year about opening a new SRO in Homewood, Unity Recovery was able to lease property in March.
“For all of the things people can say, what I can say specifically to this is that they did move fast. Bureaucracy never moves this fast,” he said.
Motions look to Highland Park, Houston
As a result of Thursday’s hearing, two council members introduced new motions to address displacement and homelessness.
Councilman Nicholas Futules introduced a motion urging Fitzgerald to explore with the City of Pittsburgh the possibility of using the former Veterans Administration Hospital in Highland Park as a potential shelter.
Council President Patrick Catena put forth a motion urging Fitzgerald and ACDHS to work with the city, unhoused persons and other community members to see how Houston’s approach to homelessness could be carried over into Allegheny County.
The Texas city transferred more than 25,000 displaced people into apartments and houses over the last decade, according to The New York Times. Houston prioritized moving people they identified to be the most vulnerable directly into stable housing regardless of behavioral health problems.
Frank noted that problems of displacement and homelessness in Pittsburgh weren’t as bad as places like San Francisco.
“It’s manageable. If we wanted to do it we could,” Frank said about housing people. “We’re a rich society and some of it is about our priorities.”
Lucas Dufalla is an editorial intern with PublicSource and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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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