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The Homeless In Pittsburgh Face Dual Threat Of Pandemic And Winter Weather

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The ongoing pandemic coupled with the arrival of winter this week is putting additional strain on people experiencing homelessness and the shelters that serve them.

Dr. Jim Withers, founder and medical director of Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, said COVID-19 has been a disaster on top of a chronic disaster for people who live outside, especially during colder weather.

“COVID has been a tremendous stress on them not just as a direct health threat but also disrupting the services they depend upon, “ Withers said.

Withers said since shelters have had to reduce capacity due to the pandemic, access to health care, food and rehabilitation services has been impacted.

Pittsburgh Mercy operates a men’s winter shelter at the Smithfield United Church of Christ Downtown and a women’s shelter at Shepard’s Heart Fellowship and Veteran’s Home Uptown.

Both facilities are adhering to public health guidelines and safety protocols set forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Allegheny County Health Department.

Withers said Allegheny County has provided safe haven hotel spaces for people in high risk groups to get them out of the mix of the homeless population.

Credit Pittsburgh Mercy
Dr. Jim Withers, founder and medical director of Pittsburgh Mercy's Operation Safety Net.

He said another part of the hotel’s accommodations were for people with symptoms or for those who had tested positive for COVID-19.  Other shelters in the city are also experiencing similar challenges.

Jay Poliziani, director of Northside Common Ministries and the Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter, said their facility is serving fewer people now than during the summer because of the need for physical distancing.

“The beds are so close to each other that it just isn’t physically possible to accommodate that many folks,” Poliziani said.

Poliziani said keeping the shelter free of COVID-19 is a challenge because homeless men typically go out during the day. “Many of them are working, so they are on buses, they are at their jobs, so we are being as vigilant as possible, but it definitely an environment that’s more susceptible to folks getting the virus,” Poliziani added.

In the future, Poliziani said they will be better positioned to serve more men in a safer environment thanks in part to federal Cares Act money they have received which  was distributed to them by the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Poliziani said the money is being used for renovations to reconfigure the shelter from dormitory style sleeping arrangements to individual pods that will allow for more isolation. He said that will minimize the risk of transmitting infections.

The public also has an indirect role to play in helping to prevent the spread of the virus in the homeless population, according to Withers.

He said wearing a mask is one of them. “It does have ripple effects and vulnerable people will suffer disproportionately.”  Withers said.  So I just urge everyone to continue to try harder not to spread the virus around.”