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Posts Tagged ‘Outreach’

How Not to Sweep Those Without Housing During a Pandemic: Pittsburgh

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

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.

Outreach in Pittsburgh

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.

Unsung Hero: Dennis Ashton

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

There are a few things I know for certain from my work life:

  1. Homelessness is a solvable problem.
  2. People who experience homelessness are stripped of their civil rights daily which is extremely demoralizing, and makes it that much harder to get back your stability.
  3. Pitchers should never be forced to bat in professional baseball.
  4. Dennis Ashton and Jim Schlecht of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) will always be there to help those struggling in Cleveland. 

Dennis came to the work helping people with government bureaucracy at one of the meal programs in Cleveland, showing particular prowess in getting people identification. He also volunteered overnight to stay at one of the winter shelters, a role that turned into a paid supervisory job. Then Dennis started doing outreach for the NEOCH. It was a part time position but he spent long hours driving around the streets of Cleveland looking for people who needed help or responding to concerned citizens who were worried about their neighbors living outside. 

Dennis Ashton checking on someone living outdoors in Cleveland.

The outreach system became more advanced in Cleveland with all the groups sitting at the same table on a regular basis to talk about strategies, housing options and the best approach with certain individuals in need of help.  They started to have real success getting to know everyone on the streets and building a trusting relationship, and then the pandemic hit. 

Dennis said that it “started out as if it was not real.” The overnight drop in center closed because of safety concerns.  The shelters started moving people out to try to de-concentrate and things began to look really bleak.  There was a ceremony to give out tents soon after the overnight drop in center closed at the church in hopes that the residents could make it on their own. The men and women were asking, “Where can we go with these tents?” Outreach staff were frustrated that all progress they had made over the last 7 years would be lost. It was decided then and there to try to put as many people as possible into hotels. The hotels were basically sitting empty and there were potentially hundreds who were going to be outside in the rainy spring of 2020. What started with just a few people and no money grew and grew. Private foundations and donors kicked in money to start this program under the leadership of NEOCH. Eventually, the County agreed to front the money for the hotels in order to de-concentrate the shelters until the federal CARES act funding was in place. Eventually, there were five hotels used with an additional space for families as well.  

The program was a huge success. Before the pandemic, it took time to build a relationship with those living outside and a great deal of coaxing to find the best solution for the individual to come inside.  Now, you could just drive to the campsite and say, “Who wants a motel room?” Then you would work with the person on their issues where you knew where they would be and they knew they were safe. The outdoor population went from a few hundred to a couple of dozen living rough in February 2021. It was difficult to move people into more stable housing because the system was mostly frozen for a year. There were very few evictions, no one was relocating out of their housing especially if there was a subsidy attached and nearly every permanent supportive housing unit was full in Cleveland. 

Dennis said it was a horrible year with many getting sick some of the more fragile died. But the federal relief for homeless individuals was successful in Cleveland because it started with a plan for safe private rooms inside. There were challenges with getting people identification and there were not nearly the number of volunteers helping with food or other supportive services that the system enjoyed before the pandemic. Getting food was never an issue for most because of the number of church based groups that served hot meals in Cleveland. All the places that afforded the opportunity for community shut down or were take out only. There were no Zoom meetings to check in with your friends that you saw at lunch every few days.

Dennis said that the local public hospital, MetroHealth, stepped up to provide testing and even sending nurses out to do health screenings. The Central Kitchen delivered food to all these hotels locally which was a huge escalation of their services. He said that all outreach were told not to transport people because of the safety of being in a car with someone potentially infected, but he just could not leave his friends out on the streets to tell them to walk the 3 or 4 miles to the hotel. Dennis said his biggest job was trying to keep people calm and not make them more scared than they already were. He worked from 6 a.m. until late at night trying to meet the needs of those without housing. Law enforcement were calling for outreach help more often and there were some sticky days when the curfew was in place and people who were outside were told to get inside or face a ticket for violating the statewide curfew. Dennis, the eternal optimist, said that everyone was doing the best they could over the last year. He said that unfortunately, the shelters have a bad reputation for a lot of people, and this hotel program gave everyone an option to go inside that we never had in the past. There were also so many people with special circumstances like pets that the system could finally help.  

Street Outreach during cold pandemic months.

In a crisis, there are people who really step up to meet the needs of their neighbors. Dennis Ashton of Cleveland, OH, is one of those unsung heroes in the local community. He went about his job getting people into housing during the pandemic without a lot of fanfare or assistance.  Overcoming the fear of infection while working to keep those on the streets informed and calm during this crisis is how Dennis went about his job.

There are many cities in the United States who could not figure out how to keep individuals experiencing homelessness safe or reduce the number of people staying outside during the pandemic. In my opinion, a large part of that is because they did not have a Dennis Ashton working in their communities. 

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