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Officials say Second Avenue Commons fire has created 'an unprecedented crisis' in shelter system

Firefighters and others respond to a fire at a building in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Firefighters respond to a fire at Second Avenue Commons on June 4, 2024.

It’s been more than a week since a fire broke out at the Second Avenue Commons homeless shelter, displacing roughly 130 people. Since then, shelter residents have been spending the night at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

But officials announced Friday that the arrangement would come to an end this weekend, while returning the center to full capacity could take "potentially several months."

Finding new shelter space for people while crews repair the five-story Second Avenue Commons has created an “unprecedented crisis,” said Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

Dalton said DHS has “exhaustively looked at more than 100 potential emergency shelter locations so we can move people” out of the convention center. While other shelters have been able to provide some assistance, Dalton said that as of Friday, about 100 people remained without a long-term place to sleep.

“Finding a place that is available for use, has access to toilets and showers, is air-conditioned, ADA-accessible, near transit, and fit for occupancy has been extremely challenging,” Dalton said, adding that officials are continuing to look for suitable space.

Firefighters and others respond to a fire at a building in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Residents of Second Avenue Commons stand outside as crews work to douse a fire at the facility.

Light of Life, Community Human Services and others have made 34 spaces available to those displaced by the fire. Dalton on Friday said officials were matching people with those locations.

The need for shelter is heightened by weather forecasts which show temperatures soaring dangerously next week.

“With a looming heatwave coming in the next few days, finding safe shelter is an urgent priority,” Dalton said.

Initially, the county planned to send the roughly 100 remaining people to the Familylinks facility in Allentown this weekend. But on Saturday morning, officials announced that they found a better option: the Pittsburgh Mercy Reedsdale Center at 1200 Reedsdale St. on the city's North Side. A medical clinic previously operated at Second Avenue Commons will also relocate there.

The Reedsale facility "was always a preferred location for us," Dalton said Saturday, because it is air-conditioned, close to transit and services available Downtown, and is situated in "a less residential neighborhood" than the Allentown site.

In a statement, Pittsburgh Mercy President and CEO Tony Beltran said the people would be housed in a 4,620-square-foot gymnasium at Reedsdale Center, where they will have access to restrooms, showers, beds, food, meals, laundry facilities, air conditioning, and other services.

He called it "the safest, most viable" site to provide longer-term care and services, noting that using it would reduce the number of times people would need to move to other sites

Those in need of shelter should not go to the facility directly but contact the Allegheny Link for support instead, Dalton said. In-person services are also available from Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Downtown's Human Services Building at One Smithfield Street.

Over the longer term, DHS and Community Health Services are expecting to bring 52 individuals into the former Vincentian nursing home property in the coming weeks, Dalton said Friday. But she noted that those spaces won’t automatically go to former Second Avenue Commons residents.

“Not every displaced resident from Second Avenue Commons will qualify for one of these spaces, and some of the units may go to individuals staying at other shelters who meet the requirements of the program,” Dalton said.

The property is part of the county’s larger “500 in 500” campaign which seeks to identify 500 units of deeply subsidized, affordable housing.

Crews are working to repair the Second Avenue Commons facility, but the county has not described the extent of the damage. Fire officials said last week that the damage appears to have originated from an overheated air conditioning unit on the roof. Dalton said Friday that “the level of damage varies throughout the building,” but officials are hopeful that portions of the facility will be able to open while repairs continue.

Residents were able to access the building earlier this week, according to Dalton, to collect their personal belongings. Fire remediation crews remain on site to clean up the damages.

Donations of clothes or gift cards are being accepted by the Department of Human Services while financial contributions are being accepted by Pittsburgh Mercy online. Those interested can drop off clothes or gift cards at 1 Smithfield Street, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Updated: June 15, 2024 at 1:45 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include comments from Pittsburgh Mercy.
Updated: June 15, 2024 at 11:05 AM EDT
This story was updated at 11:05 a.m. Saturday, June 15, 2024 to reflect a change in the facility being used to house displaced Second Avenue Commons residents.
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.