Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New city homeless center — which will accept anyone and their pet— expected to open in October

At max-capacity, Second Avenue Commons will be able to shelter nearly 180 people.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA news
At max-capacity, Second Avenue Commons will be able to shelter nearly 180 people.

Local officials are eyeing a mid-October opening for a new homeless center Downtown that takes a low-barrier approach to couples, addiction and pets. The 45,000-square-foot facility along Second Avenue, for which ground was broken more than a year ago, has been lauded as a key pillar in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s approach to confronting homelessness.

“When we create a safe space for the unhoused, we also create public safety for the city and the county,” said Mayor Ed Gainey at a press conference at the center Thursday. “Being unhoused is not a crime. It’s a situation that needs to be addressed.”

Gainey was joined by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Department of Human Services officials and representatives from Pittsburgh Mercy, UPMC, Highmark, PNC Financial Services and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

According to a recent count done by Allegheny County, 650 people were experiencing homelessness in September, and 200 of those people had no shelter. Addressing homelessness has become a top priority for city officials after tent camps got increased media attention over the summer.

The five-story Second Avenue Commons will have space for 95 bunkbeds year-round, and 135 beds in the winter. In addition to that, the facility has 43 dorm-style rooms with a bed, microwave and mini fridge for those needing to stay long-term.

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
One of the shelter rooms at the center. Each room is able to sleep about 20 people.

City and county officials were careful Thursday to avoid characterizing the space as the single solution to housing insecurity. Linda Metropulos, president of the Second Avenue Commons board of directors, said the facility is designed to fill gaps in social services.

“We are an addition to those programs. Not a substitution,” she said. “The Commons will strengthen the infrastructure by adding elements that are not currently in place.”

Those elements include free health care services, an in-house pharmacy, employment training opportunities and mental health and addiction recovery services. Weekday programming at the center will make meals, showers, laundry facilities and other amenities available to anyone who needs them.

Erin Dalton, director of Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, called the shelter “an important addition to the homelessness system in Allegheny County with the potential to engage differently with those experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

A key difference between Second Avenue Commons and other regional shelters is a more relaxed approach to what’s required of someone coming to stay. People suffering from substance use disorder can’t use drugs in the facility, but they don’t need to be in recovery before staying there either. Mixed-gender couples can stay in co-ed shelter spaces together.

People can also bring their belongings and pets with them. The facility will have lockers and a larger storage facility for people to keep their belongings in during their stay.

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pictured is one of the single occupancy units where people have access to a bed, desk, microwave and mini fridge.

According to Metropulos, pets will be limited to dogs and cats and there will be pet-free areas for residents wishing to avoid them. Officials did not disclose whether a veterinarian had been hired by the shelter yet but said a dog-washing station and veterinary appointments would be provided to those who need them.

The shelter, located on the third floor of the building, will be open 24/7, unlike other local shelters that stop intake at a certain time. “Someone could arrive in the middle of the night and access a bed,” said Abigail Horn, deputy director for the Office of Community Services in the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

People can also store items banned from the shelter — such as drugs, weapons or other items — in so-called “amnesty lockers” prior to getting checked in through security. “They will be able to keep those things within that amnesty locker, no questions asked,” said Horn.

During the day, medical providers will be able to offer on-site care and prescribe medications, some of which can be filled in-house. UPMC will operate a free clinic to treat chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. People can also get free gynecologic, hepatitis C and STD screenings.

Patients don’t need to be staying at the facility to access the free clinic. With Second Avenue Commons less than a block away from the Allegheny County Jail, medical center director Dr. Anita Leon-Jhong said people released from the jail could come to the center to make sure their prescriptions don’t lapse.

“When patients are released from the jail, often they are released without any medications whatsoever or maybe a seven-day supply,” Leon-Jhong said. “They can come, they can get connected with DHS for housing, they can get medications from us. We can connect them to longer term services.”

With a maximum capacity of 180 beds, Second Avenue Commons plans to partner with other regional shelters that may run out of space in the winter. Allegheny County will not open another 90-bed nearby winter shelter along Smithfield Street this winter, but other county-run shelters are still scheduled to open for the colder weather.

Though the facility allows for longer-term stays, Metropulos stressed that programming will focus on encouraging people to become self-sufficient and provide connections to permanent housing.

“This is not meant to be permanent housing,” she said. Second Avenue Commons “is a way that people can flow from the state of homelessness into permanent housing.”

In the same spirit, Pittsburgh City Council recently passed an ordinance to explore how to encourage more accessory dwelling units in the city. Adding more small dwellings on private property could provide income for the property owner, and increase the stock of affordable housing.

In a report due in November, council members will learn more about how developing these units could expand through prefabricated models, relaxed parking requirements and public-private partnerships that could help property owners afford construction.

Officials Thursday touted Second Avenue Commons as an example of how government and private companies can unite for the public good.

“This public-private partnership and collaboration is just one example of what we can do when there is a will to make a difference,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “We know that homelessness is challenging, but it is also solvable.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.