As homelessness surged, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh scrambled, and those without shelter tried to adapt.
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A shelter for displaced people on Smithfield Street, once described as resembling a FEMA camp and regularly hosting more than 100 people nightly, will be closing at the end of June, according to Allegheny County.
The shelter is within the gymnasium of the Smithfield United Church of Christ and typically served as a winter shelter in years past, normally closing by the middle of March. But this year the county Department of Human Services [DHS], which funds the shelter, had extended the operations of the shelter “indefinitely,” according to the county’s website.
The shelter at the Smithfield Unified Church of Christ shelter on the early morning of Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
DHS said in a prepared statement that they are working with their “partners” in identifying “naturally occurring vacancies within the shelter system, expanding capacity at existing facilities, identifying new shelter locations, and may also utilize overflow in other facilities where appropriate.”
The statement also noted the presence of Second Avenue Commons, which opened in November, where occupancy rates have also regularly hit maximum capacity.
The DHS statement said the county has made additional housing available through their work with landlords, “which means more people can exit the homelessness system to permanent housing.”
DHS also noted in its statement the temporary nature of the Smithfield shelter and that it was not equipped to handle people during the hot weather and they also cited a lack of a central cooling system.
Just hours before the closure announcement, Jon Colburn, the church’s parish administrator, was in the process of hauling air conditioning units into the shelter to cool the space.
“This shelter is filling a need,” he said. “If people are here by choice then it’s gotta be pretty bleak for their other options.”
Colburn said that if the shelter closes, he hopes the shelter seekers would have adequate accommodations elsewhere.
“These are real people that need our care, and attention and our compassion,” Colburn said.
The shelter’s operator previously expressed willingness to keep it open.
“Team PSBG stands ready and able to continue operation of Smithfield United Church of Christ as long as the community needs it,” said Aubrey Plesh, the founder of Team PSBG, which has operated the low-barrier shelter since it reopened in November. Plesh made the comment prior to DHS’ announcement.
Plesh could not be immediately reached for comment following the county’s announcement.
Plesh has said previously that the shelter allowed couples to stay together in side-by-side cots whenever possible, and followed a harm reduction model that didn’t require shelter seekers to maintain sobriety.
That low-barrier approach led to high occupancy on a nightly basis, according to Colburn.
Hours before the closure announcement, activist Tanisha Long took to social media foreshadowing the closure and calling the move a “stunning act of cruelty.”
“This is a pattern of move-fast-and-break-things-and-figure-it-out-later and trying to frame it as ‘we’re doing what’s best for the community,’” said Long, a community organizer for the Abolitionist Law Center and CEO and founder of the diversity advocacy group RE Visions, in an interview with PublicSource.
Long said she was concerned that there are still not enough housing options for people staying at the shelter.
“We have to operate in the reality that yes, this was never meant to be a permanent shelter, but people are relying on this for overnight shelter,” Long said. “When we’re talking about making Downtown safer, we need to talk about making Downtown safer for everyone,”
She questioned the timing of the decision: “Why the urgency?”
As he carried air conditioning units, Colburn said the church’s work of helping those in need of shelter is a calling from what the group believes Jesus instructs them to do.
“Whether it’s for just another week or the rest of the summer, we’ll have these units in there for the people,” he said.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with PublicSource who can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @stephstrasburg.
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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