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Cold Puts Homeless At Risk: ‘Some Of Them Would Rather Die Than Go To A Standard Shelter’

Gene J. Puskar
The polar vortex has plunged much of the country into the coldest arctic conditions in two decades.

The homeless population is especially at risk from the polar vortex that has descended on much of the country, including Pittsburgh, and is expected to last through Thursday. While some are reluctant to take shelter, the arctic temperatures are likely to fill the region’s homeless shelters beyond capacity, according to Dan Palka of Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net.

“Maybe tonight is a perfect example of a time when individuals who are previously very recalcitrant about engaging might, because of the degree of cold, step in, engage, utilize services,” Palka told 90.5 WESA’s The Confluence Wednesday.

“And then, they might just go back outside again," said Palka, who serves as Operation Safety Net’s street outreach director.

Palka’s organization operates a winter shelter in downtown Pittsburgh. (More information about Operation Safety Net, and a list of shelters, is available here.)

Jim Withers, medical director for Operation Safety Net, said it can be difficult to link people who experience homelessness with the support they need to survive the dangerous cold. He estimates that on the worst winter days, 200 people in Pittsburgh do not take shelter.

Hear Withers' and Palko's full conversation with WESA's Kevin Gavin here.

While some cannot make it to the facilities, he said, others are wary of the social services system. Withers said some experience trauma due to past denial of services or mistreatment.

“Sometimes that’s their perception,” he said, “but it’s real for them. And I know people, some of them would rather die than go to a standard shelter.”

Withers said mental health issues, which are common among the homeless, often make it harder to establish trust.

To address this challenge, Withers said, service providers should work year-round to build relationships with people who experience homelessness.

Palka said the process begins with “listening more than talking, and trying to create a sort of presence that people feel welcome in.”

That way, he continued, “you can be the first step to help them sort of set foot through the door and start engaging with some of the services that they need.”

Warming centers, which provide daytime and evening protection from the elements, offer another option for weathering the extreme cold.

Leslie Cooley of the South Side Flats stopped at a center in the South Side Wednesday. She said she was taking a break before walking into downtown Pittsburgh.

Credit An-Li Herring / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Leslie Cooley managed to walk from her South Side Flats home to downtown Pittsburgh by stopping at a warming center along the way.

“This is like 15 blocks up from where I live, and I was frozen by the time I got here,” she said. “But I knew early in the day, if I could make it here, I could get to my destination.”  

The city of Pittsburgh will offer warming centers Wednesday and Thursday at the following locations:

  • Greenfield Healthy Active Living Center, 745 Greenfield Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15217
  • Homewood Healthy Active Living Center, 7321 Frankstown Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15208
  • Sheraden Healthy Active Living Center, 720 Sherwood Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15204
  • South Side Healthy Active Living Center, 12th & Bingham St., Pittsburgh, PA 15203

Find warming centers and shelters throughout Allegheny County using the app here or United Way's 2-1-1 helpline. The helpline can be used at all hours by dialing 2-1-1 (or 1-888-553-5778), texting 898-211, or visiting

*This story was updated at 10:58 a.m., Jan. 31, 2019, to include additional resources for finding cold weather shelter.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at
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