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With the Smithfield Street homeless shelter set to close next month, where will people go?

 The Smithfield United Church of Christ sits along Smithfield Street downtown.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The Smithfield United Church of Christ has served as an overnight winter shelter in Allegheny County. It's set to close next month.

Allegheny County plans to close one of the two low-barrier homeless shelters in downtown Pittsburgh next month. But some advocates say it isn't clear where the people who have relied on it will go.

The basement of the Smithfield United Church of Christ has traditionally served as a temporary shelter during the colder months of November through March. But earlier this spring, Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services said demand was so overwhelming that the shelter would remain open longer.

As the temperatures warm, however, county officials say the facility isn't equipped to handle tenants, with the lack of a central cooling system as a major concern. DHS Director Erin Dalton said the county has provided air-conditioning units as a stopgap, but said those are far from a “permanent solution.”

“We've looked at renovations that would include HVAC upgrades to central air, [but] it's not even practical to do those kinds of improvements” to the church building, she said Tuesday.

Chase Archer Evans, a member of the county’s Homeless Advisory Board who is homeless himself, said the shelter is far from perfect even during the winter months. Hygiene concerns are one reason why.

“Most people go to these places, and they haven’t showered in a week," he said. "They wrap up in these blankets and they have a hard time washing these blankets.”

Evans said the people staying at the Smithfield shelter, and others experiencing homelessness elsewhere, are in desperate need of a safe place to shower and use the restroom. And he agreed the lack of air conditioning could be a health concern.

“When you look at jails, they're at least air-conditioned so that the spread of disease is a little bit slower,” he said.

'We are seeing some improvements'

The Smithfield shelter initially wasn’t going to open at all last winter, because many officials were counting on the new Second Avenue Commons facility near the county jail to reduce demand. After prolonged construction delayed the opening of Second Avenue Commons, the county opened Smithfield, but planned to phase it out once Second Avenue Commons was up and running.

Officials said at the time that those at Smithfield would be encouraged to move to Second Avenue. But the newer facility filled up immediately after it finally opened in late November. And many of those who couldn't find a bed there continued to flock to the Smithfield Street shelter.

They haven’t stopped coming, even as temperatures rose.

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The county estimates that between 100 and 125 people stay at the shelter regularly, though some advocates estimate the number could be even higher. And county officials said in March that the Smithfield facility would stay open beyond the traditional spring closure date because of the demand.

“Closing the shelter completely will require more flow through our housing continuum into permanent housing,” Dalton, the DHS director, said at the time. “Through increased engagement with landlords and other efforts, we are seeing some improvements, but we are not there yet.”

That's still true even as the county is moving to close the Smithfield Street facility. Dalton told WESA on Tuesday that while the county has made some headway on finding longer-term housing options, permanent housing solutions remain a work in progress.

She described boosting rental assistance, giving caseworkers more support and incentivizing more landlords to work with homeless people as some of the initiatives the county has undertaken.

"The extent to which people think we are just kind of watching this happen and not trying to do something to help support people, I think I think that's not right," Dalton said.

The consequences of scattering people

Dalton said Allegheny County DHS will be working over the next month to relocate people who rely on the Smithfield shelter to other locations within the county’s shelter system.

The county runs more than a dozen shelters that serve single adults experiencing homelessness. And Dalton said it also has access to shelters that specialize “in services for families, for women, [and] for individuals.”

But scattering people outside Downtown or in the suburbs won’t work for everyone, she acknowledged. Relocating people outside Downtown could put them further away from a job or resources such as the drop-in center at Second Avenue Commons.

“If we said, 'We have a location for you in McKeesport' and they don't want to go there, that would [not] work out very well,” she said. “Our goal would be to identify options that are a better fit for those folks.”

Dalton said DHS may explore transportation services to get people from their new shelters back Downtown. A county van service, for example, could help people “getting health services, going to other resources Downtown. But it could also be getting people to other places in the community where there are meals.”

She couldn’t say how far the county was in exploring such a resource or when it might materialize.

And while county officials are confident that they’ll be able to relocate people, Evans is less sure.

“I believe that they'll try,” he said. “And I think they'll have a couple of successes. And I think they'll have some massive failures.”

Evans said that some people will refuse to relocate and could decide to join a tent encampment instead, at least during the warmer months. He warned that an influx of new people to existing camps could create tension. Established camp dwellers, he said, “don't want more people showing up, blowing up the spot and making it worse."

Evans said it will be hard to track the impact of closing Smithfield Street on camp populations because the presence of encampments tends to increase during the warmer months anyway.

Dalton also argued that the camps would reappear regardless but said that the County will reach out to people living in tents who may want to come inside.

'It's a lifeline for people'

Evans said the county needs to do a better job of communicating the changes to people who rely on the Smithfield Street shelter. As someone who has been homeless most of his adult life, Evans said it’s critical to get information about services to the people who need them.

“It’s a lifeline for people,” he said. “[And] it took the media asking them questions for them to put out a statement.”

City Councilor Anthony Coghill, who chairs a subcommittee focused on homelessness in Pittsburgh, said he wasn’t informed about the closure, even though he'd been at the shelter Monday.

“It was a surprise to me,” he said. “We have to have a place for these folks to go.”

Coghill conceded that the Smithfield shelter was not intended to stay open year-round, and he too voiced concerns about the need for air conditioning. He said he’s confident that the county will find new space for people to go.

In the meantime, Coghill said he’s waiting to hear back from Mayor Ed Gainey and the county about council’s newly released plans to create more transitional housing in the city. “We cannot continue to let people sleep on our streets. We have to build housing for them.”

Gainey’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday about its response to the pending closure of the Smithfield Street shelter.

Business owners want a different solution

Some Downtown stakeholders applaud the county’s decision to relocate people away from Smithfield Street. Nearby business owners say they've seen a drop in business as a result of the crowds outside of the church.

Jack Cohen has owned nearby S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes since 1978. He said the disruptions caused by tenants at the center were the “worst” he’s experienced so far.

“A lot of our customers don’t want to walk past them,” he said, adding that customers have called to see if the shelter is still open when deciding whether to visit the store.

Cohen added that the shelter isn’t a good fit for people who need a place to be longer than a single night. “They make them leave like at 6 or 7 in the morning and they just hang out there [and] wait till they open again,” he said.

Cohen said he and other business owners met with officials earlier this month and urged the county to close the shelter.

Dalton said the county took neighborhood concerns into consideration when making the decision to close. But she pushed back on the idea that the success of local businesses hinges on whether people are loitering nearby.

“If Downtown businesses and others think that just the decentralization of the shelter system will solve all of the problems that they're concerned about, I think it's likely more complicated than that,” Dalton said.

What happens next?

It’s unclear what the future holds for the Smithfield shelter. A DHS spokesperson declined to confirm whether the county plans to open the facility next winter.

But Evans argues that the county should make an even bigger commitment to the region's most vulnerable, calling the homeless situation a “crisis.”

“We're over here arguing apples and oranges and like, the fruit cart is barreling over a hill,” Evans said. He said although the Smithfield Street shelter is far from perfect, it's troubling to see it close without a new shelter replacing it.

“It's a lose-lose situation," he said. "And if we're going to lose, we might as well help people at the same 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.