About 8 p.m. Wednesday -- 16 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping -- officials of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System's Operation Safety Net trudge along railroad tracks in the South Side before climbing a slippery hillside path to a homeless camp nestled under a trolley bridge deck along Arlington Avenue, all under an over-arching Liberty Bridge.
OSN Program Assistant Mike Sallows, 57, of the North Side, who provides outreach to the unsheltered homeless, calls into three tattered tents, each surrounded by trash, to ask if occupants need help. A man in one tent and two women in another assure him they are fine.
In the last tent, the head of Dallas Corleone, 39, of Little Italy, New York City, pops out to talk with Mr. Sallows. The U.S. Marine veteran involved in reconnaissance said he trained in Siberia and participated in the 1989 Panama conflict, Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. No longer in the military, he now exists inside the rickety tent with 60 blankets, eight sleeping bags and a DVD player.
"I curl up in a mummy bag," Mr. Corleone said, complaining of health problems -- cold weather's impact on metal plates and screws throughout his body from "a hard life" of football injuries, war wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder from hand-to-hand combat.
The hospital group and dozens of other government agencies, nonprofit organizations and churches combine efforts in the last 10 days of January for the annual "Point in Time" count, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires from any county that receives federal funding for homeless services.
Totals won't be available for about a month. But last year, Allegheny County counted 1,492 homeless people, with 1,401 living in about a dozen homeless shelters, mostly in Pittsburgh, and 91 living on the street. More specifically, they live under bridge decks, in abandoned houses, in doorways or in nooks or crannies that provide them some shelter and security.
County homeless in 2012 numbered 1,376, with 1,423 in 2011 and 1,265 in 2010. The number of homeless families ranged from 154 in 2010 to 230 last year. For 2013, HUD funding for homeless services in Western Pennsylvania totaled about $31 million with Pittsburgh and Allegheny County programs receiving about $17.4 million.
The annual count is part of HUD's effort to end homelessness for veterans by 2015 and for the entire population by 2020. But Patricia L. Valentine, executive deputy director for integrated program services in the county Department of Human Services, said she's anticipating a 5 percent cut in funding for homeless services this year, due to last year's federal sequester cuts.
The count is key to federal funding and planning.
"We must get as accurate a count as we can make," said Chuck Keenan, administrator of the county Bureau of Homeless Services. The goal is to encourage people to go to shelters and seek assistance for housing, health care, transportation and other resources.
"We're trying to end homelessness, and our tracking program is doing that," Mr. Keenan said.
This year's weather has been brutal to the homeless. But it made the count a bit easier. Subzero temperatures this week convinced all but a few to enter shelters, especially the two severe weather emergency shelters. One is Safety Net's shelter for men at the Smithfield United Church, 620 Smithfield St., Downtown, while women are screened there and sent to Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, at 13 Pride St., Uptown. That shelter also has a floor for homeless veterans.
Those shelters open when temperatures fall to 25 degrees or lower, or when other extreme weather conditions occur.
Mr. Sallows and Jim Withers, Safety Net's medical director who founded the organization in 1992, make endless rounds to homeless camps to provide help. In the process, they also witness the challenges of survival.
At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, with temperatures below zero, Mr. Sallows said, he checked a homeless camp along Second Avenue, under the Parkway East road deck, where he found a man shaking uncontrollably under a tarp "and almost in a seizure." "Kentucky John" was wearing a lightweight denim jacket, blue jeans, tennis shoes and cotton socks and trying to survive subzero weather in a sleeping bag atop a mattress under the tarp.
Mr. Sallows ushered the man to the Smithfield Street shelter. Had no one come to his aid, Mr. Sallows said, he faced the risk of frostbite and even death.
Near midnight Jan. 22, he arrived at that same camp to find a tent fully engulfed in flames. The man told him he and his girlfriend had lit a candle inside before falling asleep. The man awakened and rolled out of the tent with his clothes ablaze. Mr. Sallows said he called an ambulance. The man suffered third-degree burns to his hands.
"Some people are mentally ill and some are very addicted to alcohol and drugs," Ms. Valentine said, noting the challenges of reducing homelessness.
Stephanie Bartok, formerly of Munhall -- a 25-year-old woman who lives with her girlfriend in the Arlington Avenue camp -- spent nine months in jail before being released in December. Homeless since her release, she said her goal is to land a job, with the hope of living "in a house with a white picket fence, a Porsche in the driveway and a teacup poodle."
Waiting to enter the Smithfield shelter, Charles Riley, 43, of Freeport said he also has high hopes.
He went to Clarion University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship but left school after injuring his knee his freshman year. He spent more than 10 years in the Army, then got a factory job.
Using alcohol to deal with personal problems, he lost his job, fiancee, house and car. He has been homeless since 2010 but hopes to return to college.
An Army veteran of Desert Storm, Mr. Riley said he's seeking help through the Veterans Administration to find housing while he earns money with jobs he gets through Labor Ready. He said he hasn't used alcohol for more than six months.
"I'm trying to find a permanent job," he said. "I'm hoping the VA can help with housing so I can get my life back. I'm tired of living like this.
"I hope and pray others don't go through what I did. You can't run off by yourself and think that alcohol is a cure. It is not."
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org.