Homeless shelters struggle to meet demand

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Allegheny County's rising homeless population, coupled with community-service budget cuts, have heightened concern about available space in the county's 14 homeless shelters, especially with forecasts of a cold winter.

"We are just about at full vacancy much of the time," said Patricia L. Valentine, executive deputy director for integrated program services in the county Department of Human Services. "The homeless system is a major concern to us at this point, with us actually seeing more families who are in a housing crisis, whether they are living in the streets or are days away from being homeless."

Ten shelters exist in the city, with two others in McKeesport and one in Tarentum, with a total capacity of 352 beds. In addition, there's a severe weather emergency shelter at the Smithfield United Church of Christ, 620 Smithfield St., Downtown, which was open 31 times during the mild winter of 2011-12 but twice as often last winter. The Operation Safety Net shelter, sponsored by the county and the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, opens from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., whenever temperatures drop to 25 degrees or lower, or dangerous weather conditions are predicted or underway.

Last winter the shelter averaged 74 people each time it opened with 643 different individuals using the shelter, as compared with 409 individuals the previous winter. The highest census for a single night occurred on Feb. 1, when 105 individuals went there to avoid temperatures dipping to 9 degrees with 30-mph wind gusts.

Homeless people often seek help only when they are in "fairly desperate straits," Ms. Valentine said.

When there are no vacancies at homeless shelters, the county has the option to place people, particularly families, in hotel or motel rooms. "We just want to get people off the streets," she said.

For now, the homeless must "call or go to one shelter or another" to find a place with a vacancy, Ms. Valentine said, describing the need for a better system to track vacancies to make the search easier for homeless individuals.

"We don't have the funding to open more shelters," she said. "We're packing more people in and asking our other shelters to increase their capacity as well. Other shelters might be able to handle more people when we ask, 'Can't you find room for another two or three?' Everyone is doing more. We're doing the best we can."

Key to the problem is the steadily declining budget for county community service programs, including various programs for the poor and homeless. Since the 2008-09 fiscal year, the county's community service budget has dwindled 29 percent, from $72.4 million to $51.5 million, for a net loss of nearly $21 million.

Already this year, 2,607 different people have spent at least one night in county homeless centers, exactly matching last year's total. Last March was the busiest month in the past two years with 699 different individuals spending at least one night in the shelters, with last May having the lowest total of 430.

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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