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Pittsburgh City Council hopes to confront homelessness with more transitional housing

A makeshift bed with blankets and a pillow sits on the concrete floor of the portico at the City-County Building downtown.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A bed sits under the portico of the City-County Building downtown.

Pittsburgh leaders unveiled a new plan Tuesday that could eventually provide the city’s homeless with new longer-term accommodations. The plan comes months after City Council first pledged to do more to provide for people experiencing homelessness last summer.

Members of a special council committee on homelessness held a Tuesday press conference to recommend three proposals: building a village of tiny homes, redesigning an office building into a dorm-style apartment complex, and constructing a long-term shelter along the lines of a facility opened last year on Second Avenue. In each case, the committee wants the city to prioritize so-called “transitional housing” which falls between a nightly shelter and a permanent home.

With such an approach, “You're not forced out back into the street day after day after day,” as you are in overnight shelters, argued Councilor Deb Gross, a member of the homelessness committee. “You can really rebuild yourself with the support that you need.”

She added that staying in private rooms can be safer than a bunkbed shelter hall, where tenants are surrounded by strangers.

Gross was joined at a press conference by fellow committee members including councilors Anthony Coghill, Erika Strassburger and Bobby Wilson. The plan was described as the first step in a long process toward better serving people living on the street.

According to regional data, there were about 880 people experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County in 2022.

The three concepts unveiled Tuesday are each designed to provide housing for up to two years. Gross said the city should view more traditional shelters as the “front door for people who need help,” and view the proposed transitional housing as the next step.

One of the three concepts — nicknamed “Second Avenue Commons Two” by city officials — resembles the 5-story complex built along Second Avenue Commons Downtown. Renderings show a communal kitchen space, laundry room and bathrooms. Officials estimated the building could provide about 114 single-occupancy rooms. Unlike Second Avenue Commons, the building would not include an in-house clinic or pharmacy.

Coghill said a rough estimate for the cost of such a structure was $20 million.

The second concept is a so-called “tiny home village,” where several small structures sit on one to three adjoined city lots with a common building where services could be offered. The village would also have a community green space and in some renderings, off-street parking.

Coghill noted that a tiny home village could be easily redesigned to fit different-sized parcels. And Gross added that a tiny home village would be quicker to build than a new 5-story complex.

The third proposal presented would renovate an existing structure to accommodate single-room units. The number of units would depend on the size and location of the building selected, but renderings show some options with in-unit bathrooms and others with communal bathrooms.

All three facilities would also provide access to on-site support services such as job training, addiction treatment and mental health counseling, officials said. The plan also calls for the city to expand its Office of Community Health and Safety by hiring more outreach workers to connect with people living on the street.

But it’s unlikely any of these building proposals will be completed soon. Before a project could move forward, City Council would have to approve the design. And construction of a site like Second Avenue Commons would likely take years. That building opened in November 2022, four years after former Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration floated the idea.

And no timeframe for any of the structures can be set until the city identifies a location to build them.

Council tasked Mayor Ed Gainey’s office last year with identifying city-owned parcels with access to water and sewage to be considered for new shelter options. But Maria Montaño, a spokesperson for Mayor Ed Gainey, said Tuesday that the mayor’s office could not yet provide a list of city-owned parcels that could accommodate any of the proposed renderings. She also declined to provide a timeline for when that list would be made available.

What it would cost the city to open any of these buildings also remains an open question.

But the committee doesn’t envision the city footing the entire bill for the facilities. Councilor Erika Strassburger said she’s convening a wide-ranging group of stakeholders that includes government officials, business owners, nonprofits and people experiencing homelessness.

Strassburger said that to fulfill the committee's goals, she intends to lean on the partnerships forged during the construction of Second Avenue Commons — a project that included financial support and services from PNC, UPMC, Allegheny Health Network and Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services.

A spokesperson for Allegheny County DHS declined to comment on council’s proposal Tuesday. But Strassburger remains optimistic.

“I look forward … to continuing to bring people around the table,” she said. “It's one phase at a time.”

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.