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Homelessness During a Pandemic

By Hayley Farrell

How Organizations in Pittsburgh Continue to Help the Homeless Through These Times 

Michael Johnson, 48 of Swissvale was homeless for four years before he was able to find an apartment through the services offered at Wood Street Commons, a homeless shelter located on Third Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh.

“I am grateful for everyone at Wood Street. I not only got the help I needed, I also met a lot of really good people that I still talk to,” said Johnson.

Mr. Johnson was able to move into a one-bedroom house in Swissvale and his bills will be paid for up to a year. He moved into his house on November 1 and received furniture as well.

Despite the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations in Pittsburgh continue to exhaust all efforts to aid citizens who have been affected by homelessness. These organizations include Wood Street Commons, Catholic Charities, and The Light of Life.

Within Wood Street Commons there is a charity operation known as Community Human Services or CHS Pittsburgh. According to Alex McCarthy, a community support specialist for CHS, the organization provides hot meals, counseling, and housing opportunities.

“CHS has a year-round homeless shelter at Wood Street Commons. We also provide breakfast and dinner free of charge. We work with these individuals on their goals, such as acquiring stable housing and benefits. We also provide support and medication management for all residents at Wood Street Commons, even if they are not in our program,” McCarthy said.

A few of the services provided by this charity have been modified and or restricted as COVID-19 becomes more prevalent in the state of Pennsylvania.

“We normally have a cafe where we serve breakfast and lunch. Since we don’t want people gathering in the cafe we’ve been delivering meals every day. We normally host weekly activities like chess and movie night, allow residents to use our phones and computers, and let them use our office as a community room where we serve coffee. We haven’t been able to provide these social opportunities since COVID, and resident use of our phones and computers have been significantly restricted,” said McCarthy.

There are still several services continuing to help the homeless regardless of the setbacks caused by the pandemic. These efforts are continuing with improved sanitation procedures, social distancing, and modified appointment scheduling.

“We now have our office doors closed to residents except for appointments scheduled ahead of time. These meetings must take place in one of two large offices, and we sit at least six feet apart with masks on. We wipe down everything after meetings and do as many meetings over the phone or video as possible,” McCarthy said.

Eric Baumgartner, 32 of Brookline speaks highly of the CHS program as he was granted housing with their assistance as well. He was once a citizen at Wood Street Commons and used to suffer from addiction to various drugs and alcohol.

“I got my own counselor at Wood Street and was able to start working through all of my emotions. I learned how to cope with certain feelings and replaced substance abuse with other positive things. I have a home now and I have been sober for over a month,” said Baumgartner.

The Light of Life Rescue Mission is located at 10 E North Ave. in Pittsburgh. This organization is a homeless shelter aiming to provide assistance to homeless men, women, and children in the greater Pittsburgh area.

According to Jerrel T. Gilliam, executive director for Light of Life, there were 12 positive COVID-19 tests within the shelter in October. “We contacted the Allegheny Health Department immediately and moved those who tested positive, and their roommates to county approved care locations. Since then, we have been testing weekly and we’re happy to report that all tests from the past week are negative,” said Gilliam.

“Staff who might have come in contact with individuals who tested positive were self-quarantined for two weeks and 50 people sheltered in place inside our 10 E. North Avenue Mission, including 10 staff, 20 residents, and 20 shelter guests. Thankfully, we were able to continue serving guests outside the Mission during this time for breakfast and dinner while we continued to monitor and test all staff, residents, and guests weekly,” Gilliam said.

Michael Johnson describes the people he has met while at the shelter as long time friends. He is able to now focus on finding a steady job and saving his money. He even expressed a desire to decorate his apartment and even get a dog.

“CHS gave me a second chance because I messed up a lot in my life. It is hard for me to believe that I have the opportunity to rebuild my life. I even have a year of paid rent to save my money,” said Johnson.

This piece is from Multiplatform Magazine Reporting Digital Magazine FALL 2020 Issue “Good Trouble – The New Normal.” 

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