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Identity & Community

Honoring Pittsburgh's Homeless Who Died in 2014

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Under the overpass at Fort Pitt Boulevard and Grant Street in Downtown Pittsburgh is a wall that holds 132 bronze plaques. Six more plaques will be added Sunday to remember the six homeless Pittsburghers known to have died while living in the streets in 2014.

The 17th annual candlelight memorial service will be held there Sunday evening at 7 o’clock..

“It’s to call attention to the tragedy of homelessness,” says Stephanie Chiappini, program manager of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System’s Operation Safety Net, which  hosts the vigil each year.

Pittsburgh is among the more than 150 U.S. cities that participate in National Homeless Persons Memorial Day observances December 21, the longest night of the year.

138 homeless individuals are known to have died  in Allegheny County since 1989. 

Chiappini says the vigil, is held outside, on the first day of winter, to give a sense of being unsheltered.  “We start to feel cold and we’re chilled and we’re bundled up and we’re complaining how cold and wet it is, and that’s kind of a way to realize what everyday is like for the folks who sleep outside.”

Physicians, nurses, service providers, members of the general public will attend along with some homeless individuals who want to “remember a friend.”

“I’ve actually been able to locate a couple of the family members via the Internet, family members of the people that passed away this year, “ Chiappini says, “and they were glad that their family member was being remembered.”

According to Chiappini, Operation Safety Net care providers have reached approximately 10,000 homeless individuals, visiting them where they live—in camps along riverbanks, in alleyways, or beneath bridges and highway overpasses.  In addition to providing mental and physical healthcare, the program has assisted 1,200 homeless individuals find homes of their own.

But she adds an ongoing concern is that the homeless are getting moved from one place to another.  She cites as an example a camp that was moved from the North Side to the South Side and now is near the south end of the Armstrong Tunnels and there are complaints “from people having to see them as they drive to work.” 

“I would suggest people look at it as less of an eyesore and more of a disgusting thing that is part of our society that people are sleeping outside,” Chiappini says.  “That’s the tragedy, not the danger or the eyesore.”

Chiappini says those who attend the vigil are welcome to make a donation to help provide services as well as warm clothing including thermal underwear which she says are “gold” for the homeless.