By Eva Lyons, NCH Intern Spring 2022
Similar to many other cities during the pandemic, Pittsburgh saw a large increase in the number who fled the shelters and could not find other housing so began living outside. Much of this trend is out of the cities hand, except for how they choose to react to this crisis or minimize it. Pittsburgh is the largest city within Allegheny County. Allegheny County prioritized those without housing to keep them safe during the pandemic. Other cities such as Cleveland, OH, and Santa Fe, NM, went down the same path, but most other cities adopted a law enforcement strategy to homelessness. Because unhoused individuals have many chronic health conditions they are at higher risks of getting COVID-19. There are far fewer places to isolate, which has caused an increasing number of people living on the streets in freezing temperatures.
Allegheny County took a more hands on approach and worked to keep everyone safe. They utilized every federal resource they could find, assembled unprecedented amounts of funding to get people inside. They adopted a prevention strategy, and tried connecting people to available services. In looking at models from the pandemic, we believe that Pittsburgh can serve as a template for other government entities to model in response to a health crisis as well as a better strategy for dealing with the emergency of homelessness.
Abigail Horn, Deputy Director of the Office of Community Services for Allegheny County, and Andy Halfhill, Administrator for Homeless Services for Allegheny County shared that the Health Department played an important and positive role in protecting their homeless population. The Health Department met regularly with homeless providers to determine best practices. They also sent staff to check out the shelters and determine next best steps following any health checks. Ms. Horn shared that they were very hands-on and active within the community.
Allegheny County tried to take advantage of every single resource they had available to help their homeless population during these troubling times of the pandemic. They worked to be very nimble and to meet any needs that came along. One of Allegheny County’s main successes was their focus on getting the Safe Haven Hotel running and available for isolation and quarantine spaces. Families and youth could utilize these spaces which also included single adults. This effort helped to deconcentrate people from congregate single shelters. Part of these spaces were designated to move people who were deemed “higher risk individuals” into a safer space. They also were able to utilize rooms in the winter for winter shelter overflow. These efforts started within the first year of the pandemic, showing where the county’s priorities rightfully laid.
Another great success from the county involves how they used the funding and resources they had hosted community discussions to figure out the priorities and then used the dollars coming in from the federal government to prioritize the needs. They decided to focus on their most vulnerable community members with chronic health conditions who had no where else to stay. They used their funding to provide hygiene centers and toilets to larger encampments. Furthermore, the county pushed to help get everyone vaccinated and tested. They sent medical professional out to the streets, and they offered a space to isolate and quarantine at the Safe Haven Hotel.
Rather than clearing encampments and displacing individuals, they brought resources to those sleeping rough in Pittsburgh. County officials passed along essential resources and compassion that they hoped would build trust to bring people inside. Historically, Pittsburgh has been really respectful, working with outreach teams and educating their police on the best ways to interact with the diverse homeless population. Police are paired with street outreach who get to take the lead with issues or concerns facing homeless individuals. Furthermore, police defer to street outreach teams to help with clean up when residents request and to help pick up trash. This helps ensure that people’s belongings are not being thrown out.
The county’s funding was also used to help families with the technology barriers for online schooling. They provided additional resources, such as cellphones, laptops, and hotspot access to those in need. These resources also helped families and individuals access the internet and online services to contact doctors and other essential providers. Additionally, IPads were provided to the Safe Haven Hotel to help the people living there temporarily. Allegheny County has long- term efforts in place to serve their homeless sector, as this crisis was here before the pandemic and will be here afterwards until something major is done.
They keep their street outreach teams active throughout the year doing health checks and connecting people to housing and hygiene services. These outreach teams play a huge role in the county. They helped connect unhoused individuals to the Safe Haven Hotel as needed. Allegheny County has worked to get the emergency resources they were given on the streets as quickly as possible. During the pandemic, they worked to show that they were using the federal recovery dollars in a strategic and meaningful purpose.
Both state and national entities came through strongly to support the county’s efforts, enabling them to focus on supportive services that saved people’ lives. This includes an extremely robust eviction prevention program. This program kept the surge in homelessness that was seen across the nation to a minimum in Allegheny County. This program was essential because it provided more ways to keep people in their affordable housing and prevent them from joining the homeless population.
Ms. Horn shared that it was not the amount of funding that needs to increase if local communities are prioritizing their funding in a similar way to Allegheny County; instead, she shared what would help the most would be for government at all levels to provide more affordable housing. Ms. Horn shared, “It is hard for people to successfully leave the system because they cannot find safe, stable, and affordable housing when they leave, and I know that is the same across the nation.”
There are currently a lot of programs for veterans, youth, and families. This covers many of the subpopulations of homeless people, however, there are huge groups that fall through the cracks. Ms. Horn and Mr. Halfhill shared that the sub-population increasing the greatest are those with long term stays without housing and those with behavioral health issues. They would like to focus next on creating better connections between homeless individuals and behavioral health services. Allegheny County used the resources at their disposal to help keep their homeless population safe before, during, and after the pandemic. The models in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County can work in other cities to keep our homeless neighbors safe and while the appropriate housing is developed to lower the numbers.