County plan for homeless ahead of schedule

Scattered housing replaces high rises

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Halfway to the finish line, a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Allegheny County has made significant gains, state and local officials said Monday during a status report.

Overall, the county is ahead of schedule to provide 1,000 new housing units by 2015, said Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services.

He said the housing increase comes mostly from a combination of scattered-site housing (as opposed to the old high rises that have fallen out of favor) and rental assistance to private landlords.

The number of people living on the streets is always in flux, he said, but the most recent count, taken in January 2010, was 119 -- less than half of the count the year before, which was 282.

In addition, Mr. Cherna said, the county is better coordinating its services with city and community groups. It also is placing a greater emphasis on permanent housing, following the lead of the federal government, which is putting more money into bricks and mortar.

Overall, Mr. Cherna said, the county budget for addressing homelessness is about $30 million from federal, state, county and foundation sources.

Monday's gathering, billed as a legislative roundtable, was held at Duquesne University, which co-sponsored the event with Community Human Services, an Oakland-based agency that serves needy populations. About 40 people attended, including service providers, political aides and students.

Mr. Cherna's report said the county currently has:

• 462 beds in emergency shelters

• 671 units of transitional housing with support services

• 410 single-room occupancy units

• 28,700 subsidized apartments in more than 350 properties

• 5,000 beds in mental health, mental retardation, drug and alcohol living arrangements

• 8,600 beds in personal care homes.

To illustrate the trend toward permanent housing, Mr. Cherna said that temporary housing made up 66 percent of the county's capacity three years ago. Next year, that number is projected to be 35 percent. Meanwhile, over the same period, permanent housing increased from 30 percent to a projected 55 percent in 2011.

Another panelist, Pennsylvania Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, emphasized his support of a state housing trust fund that would help state residents facing foreclosure to renegotiate their loans so they can keep up their mortgage payments.

The bill, having bounced back and forth several times, is now awaiting approval by the house. Thirty other states have such a law, which Mr. Pippy said is an important tool for getting capital to build low-income housing.

"I hope we're going to get it passed this time," he said.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto said city government has come a long way in its attitudes from the late 1990s. At that time, he said, officials confused panhandling with homelessness, even though many panhandlers are not homeless, and conducted sweeps of areas where homeless people stayed, clearing out their belongings and telling them not to come back.

"Imagine going home tonight and finding everything is gone," he said.

Now, he said, the city recognizes that affordable housing is a key part of neighborhood improvement, but should do more to put that concept into action.

"We invest more in retail and big box development," he said, "but housing can really turn a neighborhood around."

Adrienne Walnoha, CEO of Community Human Services, emphasized that many families who are doing everything right are still one paycheck away from disaster. She cited a friend, a state employee, whose paycheck disappeared in last year's budget stalemate, touching off a downward spiral through no fault of her own.

"I am still waiting for a candidate to run on a platform of housing everybody in the country," she said.

Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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