During this holiday season, around 900 people are known to be sleeping outside or in shelters in Allegheny County.

Housing and homelessness were ever-present concerns in the Pittsburgh region this year. But even as tents went up and shelters swung shut, new leadership came knocking on the doors of power with pledges of responsiveness and equity.

With COVID-driven funding expiring fast, though, the long-haul effects of the pandemic may be just beginning for the city, the Pittsburgh Public Schools and other local institutions.

In so many areas of life in our region — education, environment, equity, public health and safety — the gears of history continued to turn, and sometimes to grind, in 2023. Rtvsrece highlighted emerging trends and dug deep into the data, documentation and human-level impact.

Here are some of the stories we reported, many of which will echo into 2024 and beyond.

What happens after a camp is cleared?

The year 2022 closed with the City of Pittsburgh removing an encampment along Stockton Avenue on East Allegheny’s edge and sweeping aside with it a longstanding agreement.

The tents went down just as Allegheny County’s new Second Avenue Commons shelter prepared to accept displaced people while the Smithfield United Church of Christ’s basement doors creaked open.

Howard Ramsey talks in the tent he stays in on Oct. 29, in downtown Pittsburgh. Ramsey, who works days in an industrial laundry facility, says he was a kicked out of a shelter after living there for months. He is part of Pittsburgh’s growing population of people who are unhoused after the pandemic. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

If anybody thought those developments would noticeably blunt the effects of the housing crisis, they were quickly disabused of that notion.

The early days of Second Avenue Commons were marked by staffing problems and safety questions, while this autumn saw ramped-up evictions from its single room occupancy units. The Smithfield shelter, meanwhile, became a haven for hundreds but a bugaboo for Downtown businesses, until its June closure demonstrated just how tattered America’s safety net has become.

People wait to get into the Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter on the evening of May 22, 2023, when Allegheny County Department of Human Services announced that it would close the downtown Pittsburgh space in June. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

“I understand that it can’t exist indefinitely, but this haphazard closure is going to cause death and we need to hold people accountable for that.”

Aubrey Plesh, founder of Team PSBG, which operateD the shelter at the Smithfield United Church of Christ, Downtown

With cold weather’s return came a slow-motion rollout of the county’s and city’s plan for emergency shelter. The persistent presence of at least 200 people on the street, though, left leaders looking for…

A path to long-term affordable housing

The affordable housing shortage has been well documented for at least a decade, though never so viscerally evident as it was in 2023. Yet one of the most versatile tools for addressing housing needs — the Housing Choice (Section 8) Voucher — had become rusty and blunt by the time Rtvsrece documented concerns of landlords, tenants and former Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] insiders. That reporting spurred pledges of prompt improvements in customer service in the program, but the year ended with curbs on the portability of vouchers.

“This is coming at the cost of tenants losing their apartments. Landlords don’t get payments, and they don’t stick it out. They’re forced to let their tenants go.”

DeAnna Vaughn, a landlord and former HACP administrator

City development officials, meanwhile, scrambled to preserve affordable units that might otherwise fall into disrepair or convert to market-rate status. A $50 million federal grant raised hopes for more and better Hill District homes.

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey pose alongside other officials with a celebratory check for $50 million dollars for the redevelopment of Bedford Dwellings, the city’s oldest public housing neighborhood, on Aug. 3, in the Hill District. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

County-level interests sought to bring to the boroughs some of the models that have taken root in the city. And after nearly a decade of inactivity, the Pittsburgh Land Bank slowly began the process of reclaiming abandoned city property, sidestepping legal obstacles that held up progress.

While fears of gentrification have been most pronounced in Pittsburgh, housing market forces don’t stop at the city line. That’s why Sara Innamorato was quizzed about the issue during her successful run for county executive, which has everybody asking …

Will a fresh approach on Grant Street really change things?

In what will be the last Allegheny County election season to feature direct six-figure contributions to candidates, Democrat Innamorato barely overcame Republican Joe Rockey’s large fundraising edge. (Conversely, District Attorney Stephen Zappala ran as a Republican, and bested billionaire-backed Democrat Matt Dugan.)

“I don’t think it is fair for a few stakeholder groups and individuals to tip the scales for the most influential elected position in this region.”

Tom Duerr, outgoing Allegheny County Council member

Innamorato’s pledge to focus on the “struggle of everyday people” has a different feel from outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s recent emphases, which have tended toward consensus building with business, labor and multiple levels of government, plus stable property taxes.

Innamorato has said she’d like to address increasingly skewed assessments, but also wants to reduce a reassessment’s impact on those least able to afford tax hikes.

“By us not taking action and coming up with some sort of regular, consistent [reassessment] system, we’re exacerbating inequality.”

Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County executive-elect, while a candidate
Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County executive-elect, takes questions from reporters following her acceptance speech for the role on election night, Nov. 7, at Mr. Smalls in Millvale. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Innamorato also heard “alarm bells” in the county’s selection of nonprofit contractor Adelphoi to take over the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. But she will become executive amid heightened attention to violent crime, which the county has sought to address with a $50 million effort to beef up prevention efforts.

That’s a lot on the plate of the likely most prominent member of what we’ll call …

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s pandemic-forged leadership class

Innamorato follows political ally Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey to Grant Street, but also joins dozens of new leaders who replaced longtime executives in both the public and private realms.

“Either we’re exhausted, the job had gotten too hard or we were reexamining priorities for how we wanted to spend our time.”

Caren Glotfelty, former executive director, Allegheny County Parks Foundation

Also reaching prominence this year were Pittsburgh Police Chief Larry Scirotto (who promptly disappointed some accountability advocates) and University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Joan Gabel (whose statements on Israel and Gaza left some dissatisfied).

Mayor Ed Gainey, center, takes the podium surrounded by elected officials to answer questions about challenging the tax-exempt status of 26 Pittsburgh properties in a press conference at his office on March 28, in the City-County Building in Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

The three years of turnover at the top that followed the Great Resignation may be remembered as a pivot point for the Pittsburgh region, but it won’t likely herald an extended and unanimous chorus of Kumbaya. Exhibit one: Gainey and UPMC (now led by Leslie Davis) show no signs of reaching an accord on any obligations the healthcare giant may have to the city’s coffers.

“I can’t understand why billions can’t pay a little bit.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey

And the city’s bank balance? It’s likely to get leaner, as federal American Rescue Plan Act funds run dry.

Gainey won’t be the only local leader scrambling for funds because …

Schools will likely be scraping by

The Pittsburgh Public Schools are expecting similar headwinds as relief funding dries up and costs mount.

The Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy 6-12 marching band pumps out a tune as the school’s football team plays against the Taylor Allderdice High School Dragons, Sept. 21, at Cupples Stadium in the South Side. The high schools sit only three miles apart but their disparities range from academic programming to infrastructure. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

To get through the next budget year, PPS needs to draw nearly $30 million from its depleting rainy day fund. But even then, glaring inequalities persist, with students in some schools feeling they’re being taught in a “playground” instead of a rigorous educational setting.

“We can't expect people to have faith in the public education system when the public education system keeps failing the communities.”

Valerie Webb-Allman, parent with child in Pittsburgh Public Schools

The district also faces challenges over disparate student outcomes, variable teaching quality and uneven costs maintaining a patchwork of buildings that far exceed the needs of a shrinking student pool.

Graduates of high schools in Pittsburgh and suburban districts may be wise to review university balance sheets before filling out applications as …

Higher ed weathers storms of its own

Higher education fairs little better in a city that’s hinged its revival on an “eds and meds” economy.

Amzi Jeffs, second from right, a post-doctoral fellow in mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, gives a speech before delivering demands to the university provost relating to graduate student labor, treatment and compensation on Oct. 26, on campus in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Many newer workforce entrants are questioning the value of a degree altogether. The Community College of Allegheny County lost about half of its student body between 2010 and 2022 – and even a steep drop since the 2020 pandemic doesn’t account for the whole picture, one of steady decline.

“The budget crisis really underscored how powerless we are, how little transparency there is in decision-making that affects our future, and how much we really desire to have some stability and a voice in the process.”

Lou Martin, an associate professor, labor historian and organizer at Chatham University

Alarm bells rang out from Chatham University’s sedate Squirrel Hill campus in summer, when faculty learned the university faced a $12 million budget hole. To close the gap, President Rhonda Philips laid off department staff, trimmed administration salaries and slashed faculty pension contributions.

Chatham faculty answered with an early unionizing effort they hope will strengthen their position as the administration seeks to patch its deficit. That push can be viewed as one of many efforts aimed at …

Leveling society’s playing field

Campus concerns early in the year were focused primarily on safety for LGBTQ students, and when Pitt’s response wasn’t satisfying, an effort to bring the issue before the Board of Trustees resulted in criminal charges and student conduct hearings. At Duquesne University, a bid to rename Lambda to the Queer Student Union stagnated amid ongoing tension between the school’s Catholic orientation and the growing push for LGBTQ inclusion.

Students protest against Cabot Phillips outside of the Cathedral of Learning in the University of Pittsburgh on March 24, 2023. The event was one of several that preceded activist attempts to speak out during the Sept. 29, 2023 meeting of the university Board of Trustees. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/Rtvsrece)
People protest against Cabot Phillips outside of the Cathedral of Learning in the University of Pittsburgh on March 24. The University of Pittsburgh pressed charges against at least three non-student protesters and held conduct hearings for eight students after they disrupted a public Board of Trustees meeting in September. (Photo by Amaya Lobato Rivas/Rtvsrece)

Nearly every university is grappling with diversity in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in admissions.

“If colleges lose the ability to consider race, then I think one thing that happens is we take a step backwards in terms of creating a fairer society.”

James Murphy, deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now

That ruling was also seen as a potential warning shot for other programs meant to undo effects of discrimination, and lent some urgency to the Gainey administration’s pledge to refresh the data behind race-conscious programs. Equitable law enforcement remained a work in progress, too, as a mayor elected in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police didn’t immediately dent the racial skew of his own department’s activities, or make “driving while Black” a thing of the past.

Equity efforts increasingly overlap with the ongoing environmental and climate catastrophe, and nowhere is that more newsworthy than in ...

A region still fueled by fossils

Pollution from coal, manufacturing and other fossil fuels continues to plague a region still trying to shrug off the nickname “Smoky City.”

Emissions engulf U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock on Jan. 30. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)
Emissions engulf U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock on Jan. 30. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

After Shell Chemical Appalachia opened its giant new petrochemical plant in Beaver County, a Rtvsrece investigation revealed a litany of malfunctions where, in many cases, the Department of Environmental Protection largely relied on Shell to assess its own missteps and the validity of public complaints.

In October, the Biden administration announced funding for two hydrogen hubs spanning stretches of Pennsylvania, although a proposal centered around Pittsburgh did not make the cut. Opinion is fiercely split on whether hydrogen has a role in the transition to clean energy or merely extends our fossil fuel dependence.

“I have enough chemicals in me to be living right down on that pad.”

Kim Laskowsky, a resident of Marianna whose home overlooks a gas well
Kimberly Laskowsky sits in her living room in Marianna, Washington County, approximately 850 feet from EQT's Gahagan well pad.

To some, natural gas extracted through fracking offers another pathway to weaning off coal and its carbon-heavy cousins. But families living less than 900 feet from a well pad in Washington County say their health and quality of life has suffered accordingly, while state legislation to keep drilling away from homes fell flat this summer.

Climate change and air quality are daunting big-picture problems, and if you're yearning to feel good about humanity, it might be advisable to look at ...

Spirited neighborhoods rising to challenges

If the arc of history bends toward justice, the end of that rainbow can seem elusive — but perhaps it will end in the Hill District.

Sharon Gregory, left, of Penn Hills, who grew up in the Hill District, wipes tears at the conclusion of the Restorative Justice Rededication Ceremony for Bethel AME Church as she stands arm in arm with Janet Lee Patterson, right, who was married at the site 54 years ago, on April 14, at the former location of the legendary Lower Hill church. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

The neighborhood is still wary about developer promises after witnessing one of urban renewal’s most infamous injustices when the city razed the Lower Hill District and built the Civic Arena and parking lots. But leadership at the Bethel AME Church, victimized by the wrecking ball in 1957, believe they have a pact that will partly redress that tragedy with affordable housing.

“We devote this land to end white supremacy, capitalism, racism and all other isms that bring division.”

Rev. Carmen Holt, associate pastor with Bethel AME Church

Similarly, Wilkinsburg’s population losses created both a need for redevelopment and fear of gentrification. The apparent collapse of a push to merge the borough into Pittsburgh may invite civic leaders to build on the community’s strengths.

Deola Herbert sits for a photograph with family members at her Great Gatsby-themed 90th birthday party at Wilkinsburg's Hosanna House on April 16. “It was beautiful!” recalled Deola, who arrived to her beloved Wilkinsburg with her late husband, a steel mill worker, in 1968. They bought a house on Glenn Avenue, where she raised her three children. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

“We’ve watched things decline over the years, there’s this sense that nothing can be done and there are no future plans. I think that now that we have some new people coming in, it’s starting to build up that hope again.”

NaTisha Washington, incoming member of Wilkinsburg Borough Council

Pittsburgh’s growth depends on its embrace of diversity and its willingness to welcome newcomers, and nowhere was that more evident than in Beechview. The South Pittsburgh neighborhood hosts the biggest concentration of Latino residents in the region, and its business district — once crippled by disinvestment and fraud — features what may be the region’s most bilingual main street.

Rosa Armijo, left, hugs her family friend, Miles, 5, as they celebrate Armijo’s graduation from the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corporation entrepreneurship program at the organization’s fundraiser on Dec. 7, in Beechview. Armijo got help from the organization to start her Chilean empanada business, La Bellita. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

As Rtvsrece enters its 13th year of writing, photographing and otherwise pursuing stories for a better Pittsburgh, there’s plenty of room for improvement — in the region and the media. Also ample is the spirit of determination to solve problems, whether they’re as concrete as the shortage of affordable housing or as intangible as equity in education. We’ll continue to seek and share truth, whether it’s in the form of professionally reported investigations or community members’ essays. We hope you’ll continue with us on that journey, and thank you for your readership and support.

Rich Lord is the managing editor at Rtvsrece and can be reached at rich@rtvsrece.com.

Jamie Wiggan is deputy editor at Rtvsreceand can be reached at jamie@rtvsrece.com.

Fact-checked by the Rtvsrece staff.

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Rich is the managing editor of Rtvsrece. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...

Jamie began his journalism career at a local news startup in McKees Rocks, where he learned the trade covering local school boards and municipalities, and left four years later as editor-in-chief. He comes...