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Hillman Foundation to fund affordable housing efforts in Pittsburgh

Rowhouses in Friendship.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA

Amidst rising concerns about homelessness and affordable housing in Allegheny County, local foundations are stepping in to fund efforts to prevent homelessness.

The Henry L. Hillman Foundation announced Thursday that it has awarded $5,410,000 in grants to six groups working to create and preserve single-room-occupancy units in Allegheny County.

The funding commitments “support community partners working to fill access and service gaps affecting people experiencing homelessness,” Henry L. Hillman Foundation President David Roger said in a statement.

“With a scarcity of transitional housing units available to help people find a place to live on their path to permanent housing, it’s essential to preserve existing units and create new ones while also providing wraparound services for people who are most vulnerable,” he said.

The grants will go towards supportive housing programs with wraparound services for people who may have difficulties securing affordable housing, as well as projects to create or preserve single-room-occupancy (SRO) units. The rooms are small, furnished and intended for people with low or minimal incomes. They’re often used as a transitional bridge to permanent housing.

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According to an Allegheny County Department of Human Services homeless count taken on Jan. 24, 913 people were staying in emergency shelters or experiencing homelessness in the county — up from 736 in 2022. Rising housing costs and the end of pandemic support programs are thought to be potential causes for the increase.

Foundation officials said many Pittsburgh-area SRO units need maintenance and repair. They often operate with limited financial support and are at risk of elimination as the properties housing them are sold to developers and converted into market-rate or higher-end housing.

ACTION Housing, a local nonprofit affordable-housing agency, will receive $1.66 million to analyze operations at five SRO properties around the county. Some of the funds will be used for capital projects and improvements at three SROs: The Residences at Wood Street and Centre Avenue Housing in Pittsburgh and McKeesport Downtown Housing.

“We’re talking so much about the need to address homelessness in Pittsburgh, and these buildings are such a critical part of the strategy because they give people a place to go when they exit a shelter or they lose their apartment, or they just need a very affordable place to live where they can walk to their job,” said Lena Andrews, the group’s vice president of real estate development.

“We talk about the need for shelters, but where do people go after the shelters? We need to think about the shelter itself, we need to think about transitional housing and we need to think about permanent supportive housing,” she said. “And without all three of those, we're never going to be able to address this crisis.”

Women’s shelter Bethlehem Haven (which in its early days operated out of the Smithfield United Church of Christ, Downtown) also is slated to receive $450,000 to help fund the renovation of 26 long-term supportive housing units for women at the group’s Uptown location.

“What’s most needed in the communities to help support homelessness is really a place where they can feel safe but also have the ability to really access the wraparound support services in a meaningful way,” said Bethlehem Haven CEO Annette Fetchko.

Fetchko said preserving the beds will help to stabilize critical permanent supportive housing in the region.

The grant announcement came just one day after the Smithfield Street shelter at Smithfield United Church of Christ closed its doors, despite community pushback. Smithfield was one of only two low-barrier shelters in the area and housed an estimated 125 most-frequent users.

Homelessness has been a major point of discussion between city and county leaders, business owners and advocates in recent months. Many criticized the seemingly disjointed efforts by different parts of city and county government to address the issue.

Some Downtown stakeholders have vocally shared support for closing the Smithfield shelter and moving homeless people outside of the business district.

Concerned community members asked the county not to close the shelter at a public hearing in mid-June, however, citing continued demand for the shelter and the ongoing need for low-barrier housing in the region.

DHS pledged to help them find temporary accommodations in overflow rooms at three other shelters (Second Avenue Commons, Light of Life Rescue Mission and East End Cooperative Ministries). Officials said they’ve already placed 60 people in shelters across the county.

Foundation officials estimate the grants will support 584 transitional housing and single-room-occupancy units and help create 60 proposed new units in Allegheny and Washington counties.

Other grant recipients include Light of Life Rescue Mission, Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship and Ministries, Washington City Mission and the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting currently receives funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for its sister station, WYEP.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at