Progress seen in plan to end homelessness

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Progress has been made in meeting the goals of Allegheny County's 10-year plan to end homelessness, officials said yesterday.

But at an update on the first year of the plan's implementation, they acknowledged that more needs to be done to create housing affordable to the poorest of the poor -- the group most likely to become homeless -- and to address another priority: creating an "engagement center" where homeless people can be housed and receive medical care, social services and other assistance.

Officials consider the center crucial to engaging homeless people who may be reluctant to utilize existing homeless shelters. Planning for the center has advanced in the past year, but cost estimates and funding have yet to be identified, officials told about 80 people gathered for the Downtown briefing.

They also noted that in the past year, 59 housing units affordable to extremely poor people have been created in Allegheny County. The plan calls for creating 1,000 units over 10 years.

Finding funds to meet that goal is a significant challenge, said Reggie Young, a deputy director for the county's Office of Community Services.

But even if all those housing units are created, they would be a "drop in the bucket" compared to the need, Mr. Young said, noting that a 2003 University of Pittsburgh study identified a shortage of 15,000 housing units affordable to people with the lowest incomes.

Keith Giles, chief executive officer of First Step Recovery Homes in McKeesport, noted that formerly homeless people often have trouble finding housing they can afford once they complete his program.

Officials also are concerned about losing existing affordable units, Mr. Young said.

The county is expected to move from its Downtown offices at Wood Street Commons in 2008, which could make less funds available to support the 250 low-income residents who live there. There also are concerns about whether other affordable units could be lost to Downtown development.

Michael Edwards, president of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said his group and others want to not only preserve affordable housing Downtown, but create "more affordable options" there as additional housing is created. He said efforts are underway to adopt a formal policy on the matter.

Many communities around the nation have developed 10-year plans to end homelessness, in part because the federal government has offered them financial incentives.

More than 200 communities around the nation have developed the plans, said Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Many of the plans focus on providing affordable housing linked to social services, known as permanent supportive housing, Mr. Mangano said. Experts have suggested that providing such housing is cost effective and can end homelessness for many chronically homeless people.

The numbers of homeless people in Pittsburgh have declined, according to a June survey. But Terri Laver, a consultant for the county, said more surveys are needed to identify trends.

Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in homeless issues, said a study is underway to verify reported declines in homelessness in a number of U.S. cities.


Joe Fahy can be reached at jfahy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.


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