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County Emergency Shelter Ready for Severe Weather

When the temperature dips below 26 degrees (F), most Pittsburghers have a warm place to stay – but imagine not having that option.  Homeless shelters that are open year round fill up quickly on cold night leaving  many without warmth.

That’s why Allegheny County and Operation Safety Net are opening the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter (SWES) from November 15, 2014, to March 15, 2015 again.

“Before Operation Safety Net started doing outreach rounds and checking on people in the winter and the shelter was open by the county, there were a lot of incidents of frost bite,” Stephanie Chiappini, program manager, said. “There were people having their limbs amputated, there were people that were dying of hypothermia.”

Each year, men can go to Smithfield United Church, Downtown, while women can seek shelter at the Shepard’s Heart Fellowship, Uptown, when the temperature drops to 25 degrees or when other dangerous weather is a threat.

“The notifications go out to all of the homeless providers in the area and anyone else interested in whether the shelter’s open or not,” Chiappini said. “And our outreach teams go around and make sure that the folks that sleep outside are aware that the shelter’s open.”

The county’s “Point-In-Time Summary” indicated more than 1,500 homeless individuals on January 29, 2014. 

“The majority of people, they come in, they eat, they lay down and they’re asleep within an hour’s time, they’re just exhausted,” Chiappini said. “And it kind of touches your heart that just a gym floor with a mat and a blanket and a plate of food is almost luxurious.”

Chiappini said the organization provides a “hearty” meal as well medical assistance at the shelters.  She one clinician and medical and nursing students are available each night.

“Feet are always an issue, homeless people are always on their feet, always walking, and don’t really have a change to take their feet out of their shoes and put their feet up to dry out, so the doctors are always checking the feet,” Chiappini said.

The Emergency Shelter operated 79 nights during the winter of 2013-14 – a 17-night increase from the previous winter.  An average of 104 people utilized the shelter each night, and about 870 unduplicated individuals were served in total last year.

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.