County shows progress against homelessness, officials say

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Despite recent concerns raised by a federal official, Allegheny County is making progress in its 10-year plan to end homelessness, local officials and advocates for poor people said yesterday.

During a two-year update on the plan, officials said they were moving forward on the plan's goals of creating permanent housing and an "engagement center" to address the multiple needs of homeless people, though not in the way the center was first envisioned.

"All of us recognize that we haven't done as much as we'd like. But at least we're moving down the road," said Adrienne Walnoha, executive director of Community Human Services.

Funding constraints and lack of affordable housing continue to pose challenges, said Ms. Walnoha, who also chairs the Allegheny County Homeless Alliance.

She said the alliance hopes to attract more support, in part through an advisory group that would include representatives from government, businesses, foundations, law enforcement, churches, the academic community and current or former homeless people.

The federal government has encouraged communities to develop 10-year plans, and some have attracted significant support from elected officials and the business community.

During a visit to Pittsburgh last month, Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, suggested the area might not be seeing the reductions in homelessness that some other communities have experienced and indicated that the county's plan might need a tune-up.

Yesterday, local officials challenged Mr. Mangano's assertions of how many people are homeless in the county, but acknowledged that recent surveys indicate that about 1,300 people have remained in shelters or temporary housing or were living on the streets.

Progress in creating housing for homeless people has occurred, they said. About 65 units were created in 2006, and about 75 more could be provided this year if funding is available. The 10-year plan calls for creating 1,000 units over a decade.

The plan also calls for an engagement center where homeless people who might be averse to conventional shelters could receive housing, medical care, social services and other assistance.

Mercy Behavioral Health has received a three-year, $350,000 grant from the county to implement components of the engagement center at a number of existing service locations.

While a single site would have benefits, "we don't think it is feasible right now," Linda Sheetz, director of component services for Mercy Behavioral's Operation Safety Net program, said at the meeting.

She said the effort, the Allegheny Engagement Network, is focusing in part on outreach to homeless people and "drop-in" centers where homeless people could access services. Some would be provided at two Uptown centers, Shepherd's Heart Fellowship and Wellspring.

Mercy Behavioral Health also has a "drop-off" center that could be used by police as an alternative to jail for people with mental health problems, she said.

The effort includes 40 housing units, with 45 units planned, she said.

Officials also are working to keep from losing existing affordable housing units. The county is expected to move from its Downtown offices at Wood Street Commons next year, which could make less funds available to support about 260 low-income people who live there.


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


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