Pittsburgh Mercy Health System's Operation Safety Net program is shedding light on homelessness in Allegheny County with a memorial service on the longest night of the year.
The memorial will be held to remember the homeless people who have died in the county this year. It will take place at 7 p.m. on Dec. 21, the winter solstice.
This year, Operation Safety Net will honor five people who died on the streets with five plaques to a memorial near Fort Pitt Boulevard and Grant Street downtown. Health system officials said 141 homeless people have died on the streets of Allegheny County since 1989.
Other cities across the country will also participate in remembering the homeless who have died.
Sharon Sumansky, director of homeless services at Pittsburgh Mercy, cited a report by Allegheny County that estimates the current homeless population at around 3,500. In comparison to other northern cities, more homeless residents in Allegheny County hail from the Steel City. There are also fewer homeless children residing in Allegheny County than in other regions nationwide.
Operation Safety Net works with 1,200 of those homeless individuals per year, Sumansky said. Part of the reason some people end up homeless is because they’re simply not able to make ends meet, she added.
“With the sluggish economy in the past, people lost jobs,” Sumansky said. “You know, people struggling to meet the needs of all of their family members compiled. It forced people, unfortunately, out on the street.”
The American Psychological Association reports that the rate of mental illness is twice as high among homeless populations compared to the general public, and that the rate of depression among homeless women is 47 percent -- twice the rate of the general female population. When dealing with special issues such as mental illness, Sumansky said the case workers from Operation Safety Net and other organizations must take individualized approaches.
“It may be as simple as calling the 1-800 number for a particular mental health provider, it may be continued rapport-building by the outreach worker or the community worker, trying to gain some trust,” she said.
Drug abuse is also a major issue among the homeless, said Kate Wadsworth, public relations and aftercare manager of Light of Life, a Christian homeless agency in Pittsburgh.
“There’s usually a trauma that has happened at some point in the person’s life that maybe was never dealt with or the grief was never dealt with. Maybe the way to escape (is how) the addiction has started,” she said.
In the meantime, Operation Safety Net is working to establish long-term solutions for those on the street. Sumansky said it’s been working with local governments and organizations to find permanent residences.
Wadsworth also added that it’s sometimes difficult for people to be empathetic when a homeless person’s experience is so different from their own. She said learning about homelessness is a first step toward counteracting their own indifference.
“If people aren’t educated or may not have a lot of facts on what the plight of the homeless is, and what they’re facing and the barriers and the obstacles, it’s going to take longer to solve,” she said.
Correction: Pittsburgh Mercy Health System was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story. Updated 1:19 p.m., Dec. 14, 2015.