PublicSource journalists spent months getting to know the community that developed around the Smithfield shelter Downtown, monitoring efforts to relocate its guests and chronicling its final weeks. PublicSource has obscured identities where the use of full names could reasonably be expected to have negative repercussions.
“There was a blessing the other day,” Dee said, sitting by the gray stone steps of the Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter.
As she sat among plastic bags of other people’s belongings, she’d watched money float through the air outside the shelter, where she’d stayed on the sidewalk for about three months.
“A random person stood right there, had a bunch of money. He just threw it up in the air,” she remembered.
Her bad knees wouldn’t allow her to get up. Dee could only watch others scramble as the person threw bills above the hot June sidewalk.
That day, as most days, she was hungry, and it was well before 7 p.m., when the shelter at 620 Smithfield St. would open and someone might bring her a meal.
On May 22, Allegheny County confirmed, in a press release, plans to close the emergency shelter within the Smithfield church sometime in June. The county Department of Human Services and its vendors began seeking other arrangements for people staying there, and a business group began transporting them. On the morning of June 21, the shelter — which had served an estimated 540 people over the course of 30 days — formally closed.
The Smithfield shelter, though, had morphed since its reopening in November from a place with cots to something more. Six days after its closure, around 40 people were still spending the night on and around the church stairs. The shelter’s operator, Team PSBG, continued to hold vigil on the stairs through the night, keeping log of those who visited the steps. On June 27, the log had more than 110 names.
Dee recalled the feeling of stability she’d felt a few years before, when she lived in a house and had a job in Georgia, before moving back up north to reconnect with her children.
But after a week in the Pittsburgh area, her daughter kicked her out. A friend offered to put her up once she got some kind of income. But her deteriorating knees ruled out the kind of work she’d done before at 7-Eleven, Popeye’s and Wendy’s. She was hoping for a seated job like telemarketing or to figure out Social Security.
For now, though, she had Smithfield.
The Smithfield shelter was supposed to be a thing of the past. The new Second Avenue Commons was intended to replace the longtime winter shelter, which traditionally closed on March 15. But when the new shelter’s November opening was delayed, the county contracted with Team PSBG to open Smithfield, the one place in the city where any adult could come in at any time and in any mental, emotional or substance-use state.
Inside the church basement gymnasium, cots and yoga mats stretched in rows that Team PSBG’s Aubrey Plesh unapologetically described as analogous to “a FEMA camp.”
Offering a place to sleep (next to a significant other even), with bathrooms, showers and one meal a day, in a central location, Smithfield drew those booted from other shelters for violating rules and curfews. The shelter’s numbers sometimes hit or exceeded the official 145-person capacity.
Sam checked himself into UPMC Mercy’s emergency room a little before 5 a.m. on a Thursday in late May. His out-of-state health insurance wasn’t accepted locally, and he’d been unable to balance his medications for bipolar disorder, instead developing his own dosage plan. It wasn’t working.
The 57-year-old arrived in Pittsburgh in April, from Atlantic City, with boxes full of documents and a plan: He’d attend the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business for the doctorate that would bump his tech consulting business to the next level.
Instead, a contentious roommate situation pushed him to spend roughly a week at the Light of Life Rescue Mission.
Sam’s 2 a.m. pacing between the bunks there, talking out loud and making business calls, made him few friends. As his conflicts with staff and fellow guests heightened, he was admitted to resolve Crisis Services for help in tweaking his medication. After two days there, he was back on the street. Repeated calls to 911 landed him in the ER at UPMC Presbyterian, and soon after, Mercy’s ER at sunrise.
Later that May day, Sam left the ER without a new medication plan or a new doctor.
Back out on the streets, Sam continued to call 911 in hopes of connecting to a place to stay. The police gave him a list of area shelters. He called them all. The only place that would accept him, he said, was the shelter at 620 Smithfield.
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] said in its May 22 press release that the Smithfield shelter was “not equipped to handle a population during the warm or hot weather months.” It cited the “lack of a central cooling system.”
On that same date, Jon Colburn, the church’s parish administrator, was carrying air conditioning units to be installed in the gymnasium space.
Shelter guests found out about the closure from local reporters who showed up on the church’s bustling “front lawn” to get their reaction. TV cameras pointed from a distance at people smoking cigarettes, sleeping and eating dinner on the church steps.
ACDHS Director Erin Dalton promised to work to find “other options” for some 125 regulars who sought shelter there. (A week after the closure, she cited a larger number: 213.)
ACDHS offered beds at Light of Life, Second Avenue Commons, East End Cooperative Ministry and a new single-room-occupancy accommodation called CommUNITY Place in Homewood.
Dee’s immobility and her motherly disposition prompted other Smithfield shelter guests to store their things with her during the day, when the shelter was closed, as they set out for places she couldn’t get to, like the Red Door for 10:30 a.m. sandwiches or the Allegheny Health Network engagement center a block away.
By day, she could catch a midday nap, camouflaged by the bags she guarded. Nights along Smithfield Street were loud, as the shelter’s guests oscillated between socializing and arguing. Dee worried at night that someone might steal her stuff.
On an early June afternoon, a baby-faced man ran up and yelled at the people hanging out at the church steps beyond Dee. “Yo, you got shoes, bro? What size do you wear?” Frantic, his eyes darted between the people, sizing up their footwear.
“Best friend, what size do you need?” Dee called. He began untying the blue sneakers of a person waking up on the steps. He slipped them on, apologized for waking the person up and ran around the corner.
“That’s something I won’t miss,” Dee said.
Dee noted the slow pace at which other Smithfield denizens were being relocated to other shelters. She wanted to leave, but believed she would be hard to place.
“I need a bottom bunk,” she said. “Everybody that they put up somewhere is a top bunk.”
After Sam’s late May arrival at Smithfield, he was able to make a friend or two, sleep and wake up at his usual early time to shave, brush his teeth and set about his business. The staff at Smithfield were nice, but he was still anxious about his belongings.
“Certain things, if you lose it — expensive or inexpensive, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. Not so, though, for the carved wooden Hindu idols from his mother’s collection, family photos from his childhood in India, health records, financial aid forms, all sandwiched up against the paper necktie his niece made him over a decade ago.
Back in his Atlantic City days, a match on an online marriage site turned out to be an overseas scam that put him out $3,000 in the height of the pandemic. The incident pushed him to late rent payments and eviction, but the 24/7 casinos of Atlantic City’s strip meant there was always a place to pass the night off the streets.
In Pittsburgh, though, an effort to get some shuteye in the lobby of a Downtown hotel worked for around “a fraction of a second. And right away, the security guard came and said, ‘You cannot. That’s a violation,’” Sam recalled. Sam was banned from the hotel.
In the days after a June 9 announcement that the shelter would close on June 21, Team PSBG’s Plesh walked into a meeting of the county’s Homeless Advisory Board — her trademark crocheted hat and neon smoke swirl sweatsuit standing out against a room of gray meeting tables.
Plesh pleaded for the hundreds of not-so-regular guests who still passed through the wooden doors of Smithfield each month and don’t fit in the identified “high use” list. She added that shelter staff continued to reverse overdoses.
“I understand that it can’t exist indefinitely,” Plesh told the board, “but this haphazard closure is going to cause death.”
Chris, 28, originally of Pittsburgh’s now-demolished St. Clair Village, and a young woman cuddled in the afternoon sun on an early June day. She looked up at him from under her tousled bun while cradled between his legs, on the Smithfield steps.
He’d spent several winters at Smithfield, and finally the shelter operators offered him a job. “So I just started working. I make $17.50 an hour. Yes. It’s a blessing. Like I scrub walls and mop the floor. And I wake up in the morning, mop the floor again.” He also collected blankets for the laundry.
He was in the midst of his first Smithfield romance. He and the young lady planned to find another living situation that would allow them to move on together once the shelter closed, but choices for couples are slim.
So they secured a little tent, pitched not far from Smithfield.
Sam woke up from another night at Smithfield and headed with his briefcase to Market Square. He had a new plan and an appointment to see a two-bedroom apartment in the South Hills.
Sam turned down help from an organization visiting Smithfield to help him find a post-shelter landing place after they said he’d have to be on a waitlist. Instead he turned to Zillow. “Compared to New Jersey, Pittsburgh is a lot cheaper. So my Social Security can go a long way,” he said.
He hoped his freshly deposited Social Security check and ongoing residuals from his online data processing course would cover a hotel room for a couple of nights, his apartment application fee and deposit and a quick trip to Maryland to handle some family issues.
He planned his next moves: If he could get the landlord to agree to being paid in increments, he could put a few hundred dollars down on the first month’s rent of around $900. He’d somehow collect the boxes of belongings he left out at the Monroeville Marriott at the beginning of his move to Pittsburgh, including his birth certificate and degrees from Ohio Wesleyan and Northwestern University. He’d then start moving on business projects and applying for his doctorate.
Sam headed to the bus stop for his 3 p.m. appointment at the South Hills apartment complex.
Even as ACDHS paid agencies to help to take in Smithfield residents, some in the social services world were not optimistic.
“They’re trying to preserve resources they have but the result is they’re downplaying the problem,” said Maddy McGrady of Friendship, who has worked in social services in the region for six years. “They don’t want to say we’re massively overwhelmed and under-equipped and things have to change.”
McGrady said the shelters are largely full, according to email reports distributed to providers daily by ACDHS. The public and officials, McGrady added, should be “very skeptical of this pitch that there is space elsewhere.”
“People on the street are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “So many people who are invisible are being shuffled around, they’re not stable and so they can’t hold a job. They’re on the brink of being homeless.”
Sam stood in a line that wrapped past the Smithfield steps to the front windows of the library, his green windbreaker tied around his shoulders like a cape over his suit coat. The bouncy notes of “Cupid Shuffle” echoed and combined with the thank you’s and chatter of the crowd gathered to feast. Behind Sam, the crowd parted for a second as someone searched the ground for a dropped crack rock.
The line waited for the covers to be taken off pans of ham, turkey, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn bread, stuffing, rice, pasta salad, candy bars and Twinkies.
Lorenzo Rulli weaved between the volunteers he’d gathered and the shelter guests. The Smithfield crowd “thought I hit the lottery,” he said of the feast he assembled from donated funds he used to cover Thursday dinners at the shelter. “I said no, this is from the community.”
“The most important thing for me doing the meals was to provide hope to people who have become hopeless,” said Rulli. Almost as important was showing volunteers and social media followers the importance of keeping the Smithfield shelter open.
“It is an ecosystem where people are supporting, loving, hugging one another in a system where no one else is doing that for them.”
As the line moved, members of Allegheny County Council and the Alliance for Police Accountability passed out flyers announcing a June 15 special hearing on the shelter’s closure. “You should not lose your community, nor should you be penalized for being unhoused,” the bottom of the flyer read.
Someone brought a heaping plate to Dee’s concrete seat against the library windows.
The Downtown Neighbors Alliance, comprised of businesses and residents, sent out a newsletter encouraging attendance at the council hearing on the closure, too. “The building’s facilities are inadequate, inaccessible and no longer best serving the needs of the people accessing the shelter or the neighborhood that it resides in,” it read.
Pittsburgh police, meanwhile, continued to serve their uneasy dual role as part of the Smithfield ecosystem and the arm of law and order.
An officer walked across Smithfield carrying a case of water, smiling as people gave him a hard time. He handed the waters to Rulli, who was hosting the “community love-in.”
An hour later, bike officers surrounded a man on Strawberry Way across from the shelter. Rulli filmed on his phone as the police handcuffed the man and talked to him as people watched from the shelter steps.
Commander Matthew Lackner of Pittsburgh Police’s Zone 2 was excited about the new substation by Market Square, and a pilot program through the city Office of Community Health and Safety that teams officers with social workers to respond to emergency calls. He recounted the first arrest he made, 28 years earlier, of an individual whose alcohol dependency contributed to frequent disorderly incidents. That person is causing the same kinds of incidents now.
“Should we lock him up forever? No. I mean, he has a significant problem,” the commander said. “But he’s pretty impactful on the people that live Downtown.”
Fueled by his pink “Paradise” drink from Starbucks, Sam waited to cross the busy road in front of Second Avenue Commons in hopes of setting up a way to get his mail. He felt a path forward after his trip to see the apartment in the South Hills and was trying to set up the financial infrastructure he needed to make it a reality.
Sam came out of the Commons’ double doors victorious. He got a code to retrieve mail, the ability to use the shelter address on applications, and a next-day appointment at the engagement center’s health clinic to get set up with a primary care physician and a psychiatrist.
Looking to raise some rent money, he set off for his next stop – to sell his laptop.
“Oh, there are keys missing,” said the shop attendant at Trader Electronics, a pawn shop two blocks from the Smithfield shelter.
As the machine slowly booted up, Sam reached in his briefcase and gifted the attendant one of the Hindu statues that had sat atop his mother’s altar during his childhood in India. “I’ve had these for 40 years,” he said. “It’s time to start distributing them, spread the luck and generate more.”
He walked out with $55 for his old HP.
On the evening of the council hearing about the shelter’s closing, a line stretched into the courtyard at the Allegheny County Courthouse as people went through security.
Scenes from Allegheny County Council’s special hearing on the impending closing of Smithfield United Church of Christ’s homeless shelter on Thursday, June 15, 2023, at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown.
Plesh and Team PSBG arrived on foot in silence, in the printed sweatsuits that allow them to stand out to guests and police alike when working at the shelters they run at Smithfield and in McKeesport. Rulli and other advocates led a crew of shelter guests into the courthouse’s Gold Room, where they were joined by business people in suits.
Cassandra Heckert, club manager at the historic Allegheny Harvard Yale Princeton Club, a neighbor to the Smithfield shelter, listed incidents over the past few months: an overdose in the courtyard, people entering the club without permission, a string of stabbings in the alleys surrounding the club, people using the courtyard as an open air toilet. She then spoke about her own experience of homelessness and how the unhoused are being treated Downtown.
“I think what’s happened is someone has decided that they don’t like the people experiencing homelessness and they’ve made a personal vendetta against these people to remove them from their line of sight.”
On the steps, as closing day loomed, emotions ran high, fights broke out. Sometime-Smithfield guest Lonzo Green, an actor and director from the Hill specializing in the work of August Wilson, sat by himself, writing a poem about the scene.
“The city glitters.
Neon lights shine.
While me, my brothers and my sisters are caught up in a past time.
We love one another. We think twice or two times,
But it’s always something different. And it’s never nothin’ nice.”
The cool of his gravelly voice was cut by someone bashing another person with a tupperware container at the shelter steps.
Sam looks at family photos from his childhood in India on Monday, June 19, 2023, in his apartment in Baldwin. Settled with his meaningful possessions, he was excited to start a life and his business there. “I was really excited that I was finally able to burst through,” he said.
Far from the bustle of Smithfield, Sam sat in his quiet two-bedroom apartment in the South Hills, going through black-and-white photos of him as a boy growing up among the bungalows and beautiful gardens of Bangalore. In one bedroom, a printer on the floor hinted at a future office space for his tech consulting company. He had a meeting with the management that afternoon to figure out the final details and then he could work on getting the rest of his belongings together.
A call a few hours later revealed the meeting with apartment management did not go well. They said that if he didn’t get his stuff out by 6 p.m., they’d call the authorities. “It’s pretty much an order.” Still exhausted from pulling an all-nighter in the casino the day prior, Sam caught a bus down to the only option he knew he had – 620 Smithfield.
“Does anyone want a space at Light of Life or East End Cooperative Ministry or Bethlehem Haven for females?” Amanda Fry, a member of Team PSBG, yelled as she balanced a clipboard, a phone and the pressure of finding the Smithfield guests congregating on the steps a new place to lay their heads. The sidewalk swirled around her – Smithfield guests hauling their bags, volunteers handing out pizza, media covering the day’s story and the regular evening traffic all competed for space. She worked like a switchboard operator, piecing together peoples’ needs with what was available.
With one night left for the shelter’s operation, a shuttle run by Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership pulled up and outreach worker John Holzer rocketed out the side with a pen and loose piece of paper. For a week, Holzer had been trying to connect people with meals, doctor’s appointments and rides between shelters for those holding the golden ticket of referrals to other shelter beds.
Scenes from the last nights of Smithfield shelter.
“There’s really not a lot of options,” said Holzer, once homeless himself. “Thank God for Amanda here because without the referrals, we can’t take them”
“I’ve got two guys to go to the East End, they’re getting ready right now,” Fry said to Holzer.
Another shuttle pulled up and two PSBG team members stepped into the chaos. They held Fry as she wept, still clutching her clipboard.
For the last time, the Smithfield shelter doors opened at 7 p.m. and people shuffled in.
Outside on the steps, Andre Wright sat in his folding chair in a red Jurassic Park jacket and rolled a cigarette. He’s seen this before, when the city started pushing people out of encampments last year. “So now you gotta put all the tents back.”
Sam was on his fifth bus of the afternoon, pinballing through the South Hills in an attempt to get to the apartment complex, where management had locked him out of the two-bedroom, third-floor walkup he had been planning to call home. He said management told him to get his belongings out by the end of day or it was all going in the dumpster. He’d spent his last funds on securing a storage unit down the road.
Bus drivers couldn’t point him to the apartment, and Sam got off somewhere along Lebanon Church Road with his briefcase. He hoped to catch another bus in the right direction, whichever way that was, and get his belongings, box by box into a storage unit, however many trips that took.
Back at 620 Smithfield, when the shuttered shelter doors would normally open for the evening, former Smithfield guests and a sudden Who’s Who of outreach and county services hit the steps in a wave. With the shelter unavailable for the first time since mid-November, Plesh and Fry made calls negotiating new placements as the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership shuttle whisked people to new beds. “Lonzo, you’re going to Second Avenue and you’re going to sleep!” Fry joked as he was helped onto the shuttle.
Come 7:45 p.m., the steps were clear, swept and doused with water. Even Dee was absent, relocated to Second Avenue Commons.
The street was quiet.
An hour later, a street medicine team showed up with wagons of supplies, but few people to give them to. The police looked back and forth and walked away. The shuttles between shelters stopped coming.
Then, as the clock pushed 10 p.m., Plesh looked up from her phone. A woman stood in front of her, wondering if it was too late to find a shelter bed. “It must have been a rough day, right?” Plesh smiled as she dialed Bethlehem Haven. “Yeah I’m having a rough day, too.” Beside her, Fry started arranging Uber rides as the steps began to fill again.
Sam never made it to the apartment. He couldn’t figure out the bus system to get to there, and he couldn’t figure the bus system back to his new shelter bed at East End Cooperative Ministries. As rain fell on East Liberty, Sam wandered around the surrounding neighborhoods in the dark, stopping in bars and a hospital for directions that never pointed him back to his shelter bed. Even if it had, the time was now 1 a.m., and the Ministry’s shelter curfew was three hours prior. He wished he was back at Smithfield.
Sam found an open gas station. An argument with two other customers led a run-in with the police. He expected a citation in the mail.
“There’s only so much stress one can handle for frivolous reasons,” said Sam in a later call, reflecting on his three-month transition to Pittsburgh. He wandered under streetlights until the sun rose and a local Starbucks opened.
Editor’s note: As of July 1, people were still gathering nightly on the steps of Smithfield United Church of Christ. Sam said he was again without shelter.
People experiencing problems with shelter can call the ACDHS Director’s Action Line at 1-800-862-6783 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or text “Action” to 412-324-3388.
Allegheny Links can be used to reach service coordinators and seek a place to stay. Call 1-866-730-2368 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or inquire at One Smithfield St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Photos by Stephanie Strasburg.
Lucas Dufalla contributed.
This story was fact-checked by Rich Lord.
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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