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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Severe Weather Shelter For Homeless Prepares To Open

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Updated Feb. 9, 2016: Pittsburgh Mercy Health System will open its Severe Weather Emergency Shelters nightly through at least early Monday, Feb. 15. 

For more information, below is WESA's original report from Nov. 20, 2015:

With winter weather approaching, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS)  have teamed up to provide a cold-weather shelter for the region's homeless.

The Severe Weather Emergency Shelter (SWES), part of Pittsburgh Mercy's Operation Safety Net program, will provide a warm place to stay with clinical and behavioral health care services, beds and assistance finding permanent housing, according to the DHS.

The shelter, located on Smithfield Street near the Cultural District, will be open when the nighttime temperature drops to or below 25 degrees. Kevin Gallagher, a case manager with Operation Safety Net, describes this as a clinical decision; 25 degrees is a temperature at which the body cannot easily recover from continued exposure.

“What we usually face a lot of is hypothermia, frostbite. Just, people sleeping out on the street eventually freezing to death. We just try to give them a safe enough and warm enough place to rest for the night so that doesn’t happen,” says Gallagher.

According to  Sharon Sumansky, homeless services director for Pittsburgh Mercy, the 25 degree standard is not hard and fast, they look at the overall weather to determine if conditions are dangerous.

“If it’s 26 degrees, or its 28 degrees and the wind chill misses it by a degree, they’re certainly not going to say, ‘no, we can’t open it,'" said Sumansky.  

February of 2015 was one of the coldest Februarys on record, with a daily average of 18 degrees. The shelter was open for 73 nights last winter.

The capacity  for the shelter is 120, but Gallagher says that number is flexible as well.

“We try to guarantee [being] open so nobody ends up having to stay on the street because, say, they didn’t get in line in time or they didn’t arrive soon enough for a bed," said Gallagher. 

SWES is operated largely by clinical and non-clinical volunteers, who do everything from provide medical care to cook food. It can often be a struggle to coordinate information between all those who work at the shelter.

“Making sure that everybody knows when we’re open, when we’re closed, who’s doing the food tonight, who’s not. The biggest issue is communication because there’s a ton of people and we’re extremely grateful for all the help that we get,” said Gallagher.

The emergency shelter will run from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. through March 15, 2016.