With homeless shelters full and warming weather, some street outreach workers are calling the situation in Pittsburgh a crisis and expect the number of people living outside to increase by up to 50%.

During a May 3 meeting, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey asked some 70 social, healthcare and outreach workers to inform him about the daily and systemic challenges they face and to provide insight into why people are being displaced.

Chase Archer Evans, a member of the county’s Homeless Advisory Board who’s been experiencing homelessness for more than 15 years, responded by asking him whether someone in the mayor’s office dropped the ball on the homelessness situation.

“Nobody dropped the ball when we came in,” Gainey answered. “It doesn’t exist. When we came into office, we didn’t have anything. We don’t have a ball on anything.”

Gainey said the meeting was inspired by a need to understand the situation and come up with solutions.

“I think we're all here because we all know that we are in a crisis, that we do have more people experiencing homelessness in the city right now,” David Lettrich, executive director of Bridge Outreach, told Gainey during the meeting.

In previous summers, the number of people living outside increased, Lettrich said, and this year, “by the end of May, what we're experiencing right now is going to increase by anywhere from one-third to 50%. … And our resources are taxed beyond capacity and have been since really October, November of last year … human resources and physical resources.”

David Lettrich, executive director of Bridge Outreach, is reflected in his car mirror as he takes calls from outreach workers in between rounds to encampments throughout the city on Jan. 26, 2023. “I think that there is a lack of appreciation and understanding in our city and our county for the ways in which Pittsburgh is seen as a pioneer in street medicine,” said Lettrich. “Other people in other cities all around this country and in cities around the world see Pittsburgh as a leading innovator in street medicine and services for people experiencing homelessness.” (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Allegheny County announced Monday that the crowded shelter at Smithfield United Church of Christ will close at the end of June, likely shifting the county's and city's attempts to address homelessness into a new phase.

During the hour-long session with the mayor, social and healthcare workers like Lettrich shared their views on the situation.

Some of those who work with unhoused people and attended the meeting, and others with a stake in addressing homelessness, later shared their thoughts on the crisis and potential responses with Rtvsrece.

Ready to move, nowhere to go

Melissa Ferraro, CEO of Sisters Place, said people who are homeless face more than just a lack of housing and that it’s “a complex social issue that various factors, including poverty, mental illness, addiction and trauma, can cause.”

People wait to get into the Smithfield United Church of Christ shelter, which was reopened in November to provide a place for overflow from other county shelters, Monday, May 22, 2023, in downtown Pittsburgh. The shelter is slated to close at the end of June. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

During the meeting, many shelter workers observed that people staying in their shelters were ready to move out but couldn’t find a place that fit into their budgets.

Not all of the unhoused are unemployed, she added. “Many individuals experiencing homelessness have jobs or are actively seeking employment but face barriers to stable and affordable housing due to low wages, discrimination, lack of child care and a lack of affordable housing options.”

Lauren Bellew, a harm reduction specialist with Bridge Outreach, noted that the state doesn’t have rent regulation laws that would help preserve affordable housing. As a result, she wrote, the region needs to maximize “resources that are already in place — increasing access to permanent housing placements for individuals and families with complex needs, removing barriers by providing better access to transportation and increasing career pathways, re-assessing eligibility criteria for housing.”

On the private market, one-bedroom apartments average $1,400 a month for rent, according to trade publication Rent.

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh’s voucher waiting lists include 28,000 households, though that figure includes some households that applied for more than one form of assisted housing.

Sun sets on the offices of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP], Monday, May 22, 2023, in downtown Pittsburgh. “People are in distress trying to maintain the housing they have while HACP is putting a sour taste in the mouth of property owners who want to work with them,” wrote Tammy Thompson, formerly on the board at the HACP. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Audit and redirect the Housing Authority

Tammy Thompson, a former board member for Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] who first raised the alarm on the authority’s mishandling of its Section 8 housing voucher program, said that “the unhoused population will continue to grow if something doesn’t happen to get the HACP on track.”

Thompson called for an independent, internal audit of HACP.

“The shelters are bursting at the seams, and I don't see how we don't start seeing families living on the streets at the rate we're going,” Thompson said.

Melissa Ferraro, second from left, CEO of Sisters Place, talks with staff and guests at the organization’s Free Coffee Fridays event at their offices on Sept. 2, 2022, in Mt. Oliver. The weekly event allows for residents to gather for coffee and snacks and share ideas on how to best serve the community. Visitors can also access Neighbors in Need, a drop-in social services resource connecting people to supportive counseling and assistance navigating local social service resources. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Provide incentives to accept help

Focusing solely on housing falls short of sustained stability, said Ferraro.

Instead, she said, “Incentivize participation in wraparound services for individuals and families experiencing homelessness.” Those services could include mental health support, addiction treatment and job training, she said.

Aside from financial incentives, the government can consider rewarding participation in programming with housing vouchers and other benefits “to prepare for the next steps in their housing journey.”

Bathrooms and showers are at a premium

Several attendees of the mayor’s meeting noted that bathroom access Downtown is limited mostly to business places that only allow patrons to use the facilities.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Zone 2 Commander Matthew Lackner said that over the course of the COVID-19 shutdown, many restaurants closed, further limiting bathroom access.

“So now you have all those places that are closed and you can’t go there,” Lackner said. “That’s significant, and it’s a big part of this problem. Those folks living on the streets are often customers and used the bathroom.”

Aubrey Plesh, the founder of Team PSBG, which operates low-barrier shelters at the
Smithfield United Church of Christ and McKeesport Downtown Housing, suggested more public hygiene stations with access to laundry machines and showers.

Chase Archer Evans looks at his phone by the motorhome he lives in on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, outside of the city in Allegheny County. Evans is on the county’s Homeless Advisory Board and has been chronically homeless since his late teens. He is fighting to remain on the land he has his motorhome parked on because of its access to a bus line. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Homelessness isn’t just Downtown, and transportation isn’t uniform

The region lacks comprehensive transportation options for people without their own cars. That’s especially difficult outside of the city, where transit is less prevalent and treatment for some conditions, including substance use disorders, isn’t readily available.

Shawlane Heffern, director of programs at The Open Door, said many of the people they serve lack transportation, “specifically in rural counties, which impacts medical adherence especially involving stigma in smaller rural communities.”

Improve transit services or increase the housing around existing services, she suggested.

Commander Matthew Lackner of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Zone 2 talks with Rtvsrece in the Downtown station on May 10, 2023. “Our officers are very good at de-escalating situations and they may have to de-escalate the same person every single day. But if that's what it takes, that's what it takes,” said Lackner on the role of police in maintaining public safety Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Kind words mean a lot

Lackner’s charge as commander in Zone 2 includes Downtown, where business interests often conflict with visible signs of homelessness. But Lackner noted that being homeless isn’t a crime and called for a change in attitude.

“Most people don’t want to be unhoused. These are human beings. And based upon your comfort level, you can talk to these people living on the street. A few kind words from a passing stranger can de-escalate them and that may be all it takes. Make them feel less invisible.”

Think of housing as a right

Lisa Trunick, senior program manager at Familylinks, suggested that people think about “safe, secure, affordable, permanent housing as a human right and not a human reward. We need to stop viewing homelessness as a character flaw and stop coming at it from simply a place of charity.

“Instead, we need to approach it from a place of professionalism, evidence and best practice.”

A person experiencing homelessness walks through downtown Pittsburgh on March 8, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Don’t view people experiencing homelessness as inherently different

“So many households are living paycheck to paycheck and with one hiccup, it can all fall apart,” noted Trunick. Enhance programs to help them stay housed, she said. “By setting aside funding for these households, we will see a decrease in homelessness.”

There is no single characteristic or set of characteristics that differentiates the unhoused.

“Surprisingly, if we take an honest step back and look at the general population, there are a lot of imperfect people out there that are fantastic at being housed,” she added. “The people we serve are no different.”

Eric Jankiewicz is Rtvsrece’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.

Our process:

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, Rtvsrece 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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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for Rtvsrece. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...