Local partners join hands to open Winter Shelter

Wednesday, January 08, 2020 - Updated: 1:04 pm

In partnership with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and the Smithfield United Church of Christ, Pittsburgh Mercy's Operation Safety Net announced Nov. 12 that the Winter Shelter for people who are experiencing homelessness would be open every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. through Sunday, March 15, including weekends and holidays and regardless of temperature. As in years past, additional nights in March may be added, if conditions warrant.

This year posed some particularly significant challenges as community partners worked to resolve safety and accessibility concerns with use of the church. Smithfield UCC was working through the final stages of securing the appropriate permits for use of the church space at 620 Smithfield St. in Downtown Pittsburgh.

"The opening of the winter weather shelter could not have been accomplished without the generosity of our foundation community and other partners. It's a great example of what Allegheny County is all about — coming together to solve problems and working to make our region a better place, which includes caring for everyone in our community," said Abigail Horn, deputy director of the Office of Community Services in the Department of Human Services.

Sharon Sumansky, homeless services senior manager at Pittsburgh Mercy's Operation Safety Net, an award-winning outreach program to people who are experiencing homelessness, said upgrades to the fire safety and sprinkler system have been made, which will allow the shelter to open. Additional work is slated to enhance the fire safety system, correct plumbing concerns and improve accessibility.

"There will be work going on in the shelter throughout the entire season," she said.

Sumansky added that AdHawk Solutions, which contracts with Pittsburgh Mercy for operational management, was working with Operation Safety Net to finalize the preparations needed for the facility to operate effectively and to help coordinate the meal services.

Winter Shelter services include a warm, dry place to sleep; a hot meal served nightly; access to showers and laundry facilities; basic health care with options to begin primary care; homelessness diversion and housing-ready services (for people experiencing chronic homelessness); benefits and service coordination; care management services; veterans services; winter clothing; and information and referrals to essential human services.

The Winter Shelter works in collaboration with the Allegheny Link, which connects people in need to available resources in Allegheny County, including housing, as well as to other agencies and providers in the county.

"The individuals who come to the Winter Shelter for services are often those who are the most in need of services," said Brian Matous, homeless services supervisor. "In fact, many of the individuals we serve at the Winter Shelter have multiple, complex needs."

Besides being a place for the homeless to get out of harsh winter elements, the main goal, he said, is to get a more complete understanding of why the individual is struggling with homelessness.

"If we learn that someone is coming to us because they do not have power, heat or water, then we'd rather divert someone from entering homelessness," Matous said. "We're a judgement-free service that focuses mainly on helping individuals grow out of their struggles with homelessness."

Being homelessness, he added, is not necessarily an indication that the individual lacks the financial resources to be housed. Rather, "homelessness is a complex state of being that usually only happens when several support systems and personal health factors have broken down," he said. "We want the Winter Shelter to be the place that someone can take that first step of becoming their better, and eventually, their best selves," he added.

Winter Shelter meals will be coordinated by Pittsburgh Mercy. Faith groups, organizations and individual volunteers are needed to prepare and/or serve hearty, nutritious meals for up to 125 individuals. To volunteer, call Matous at 412-689-6565.

Organizations, corporations and individuals who do not have the capacity to prepare meals but would like to contribute towards the cost — or to cover the cost — of purchasing a balanced, hot meal for up to 125 individuals are encouraged to consider making a monetary donation. Donations may be made via Pittsburgh Mercy's website, www.pittsburghmercy.org, or mailed to Pittsburgh Mercy's Development Office, 9983 Perry Highway, Suite 208, Wexford, PA 15090-9297.

Do not mail cash. Checks can be made payable to "Pittsburgh Mercy." Please note "Winter Shelter" in the memo blank. Those interested in making monetary donations offline may also contact Connie Murray, director of development at Pittsburgh Mercy, at CMurray@pittsburghmercy.org or 724-934-3537.

In-kind donations of new hats scarves, gloves, socks, boots, winter coats, toiletries and personal hygiene items for distribution to participants at the Winter Shelter are also greatly appreciated. The shelter accepts in-kind donations by appointment. Currently, there is a critical need for new and lightly used men's and women's boots and larger-size men's winter coats (sizes 1X-3X).

To schedule and appointment to drop off donations, call 412-232-5739, ext. 2, or Matous at 412-689-6565, or e-mail Operationsafetynet@pittsburghmercy.org. If e-mailing, note "Winter Shelter In-Kind Donation" in the subject line.

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