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Pandemic Raises Questions About Use Of City's Cooling Centers This Summer

Gene J. Puskar

Pittsburgh’s cooling centers might not be able to open this summer. The facilities are typically housed in senior centers, which serve a community most vulnerable to severe effects of the coronavirus.

According to a city spokesman, senior centers will be primarily focused on offering meals and activities to the elderly. It’s unclear if the facilities will later be able to open to the general public as a place to cool off. 

The number of people that use the cooling centers is small, according to officials. But Dr. Jim Withers, founder of Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, notes that people who do use the centers are often suffering from chronic conditions exacerbated by heat.

Operation Safety Net and other groups that serve the city’s homeless population are considering what alternative facilities could be used.

“We need to think about not just who will have access to that, but who is excluded due to the way we structure things," Withers said.

Wither said he's seen increased collaboration with government officials during the pandemic, which he said makes him confident that alternative facilities can be identified. He suggests using a gymnasium or other large facility where social distancing guidelines can be met.

Jerrel Gilliam, executive director of the Light of Life Rescue Mission, points to resources like climate controlled tents used in some Western states as potential solutions.

Gilliam said people experiencing homelessness often develop complex schedules for staying cool, moving between businesses, libraries, food pantries and other air conditioned buildings. Business closures and social distancing guidelines have further complicated the issue for people seeking protection from the heat; shelters have decreased capacity in order to follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control.

"With ... all these offices closed down or buildings closed down it's eliminated those resources, so whatever resources are out there are [at capacity]," he said.

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.