Serving the Downtown Community Through the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter
The below narrative was a featured article in the Smithfield United Church of Christ's monthly newsletter – The Spire – early in 2010. Answers were provided by Linda Sheets, program director for Operation Safety Net.
Q: What is the history of the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter?
A: The program was started by the Allegheny County Bureau of Hunger and Homelessness at least 15 years ago and has taken place at Smithfield United Church of Christ for about ten years. We [Operation Safety Net] were asked to manage the facility about five years ago. We knew we could not do this ourselves, so we identified key partners in the community: Shepherd's Heart, Miryams, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as well as businesses like Highmark and Verizon and area churches, who help provide the food. It's really been a wonderful service to people who need care off the streets, for survival, and for the human connection. Smithfield Church, and specifically Rena, has been wonderful to work with. Rena deserves the highest praise for her help.
Q: What is the shelter experience like for the people who stay here?
A: The main area we use is the gymnasium; they have the liberty of choosing a place to sleep and picking out blankets. As soon as they come in they can have a meal: we do not have any rules before receiving a meal or medical care or a hot shower. They are free to come and go from the shelter until 10 p.m. If they want to go outside, they can do that. I think that [freedom] is probably unique. They are free also to socialize with others, watch TV, or play a game of cards. Because there is less control of their private time, they respect the staff and there are fewer arguments. Given the number of individuals we serve, we are pleasantly surprised by the low rate of violent incidents.
Q: How has the economic recession impacted the shelter?
A: Most of the individuals we serve are very poor. They were poor before the economic downturn, so falling interest rates, home foreclosures, and business failures do not affect them. However, it's been a stressful time for the newly homeless, who ask "How did I get into this situation?" We have seen some positive things happen because of the stimulus package: new housing options have come forward in Pittsburgh. Thanks to additional FEMA money, we've been able to increase the temperature threshold, so more individuals have been served, and fewer are on the streets.
Q: How can members of Smithfield UCC be of the most help to the shelter?
A: There are two different ways you might help. One is to provide breakfast food: fresh fruit, granola or cereal bars, packages of juice or water. Another is to give thermal underwear, or general underwear. It gives people a sense of dignity to be able to take a shower and change their clothes. Financial donations are always appreciated, too.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
A: Thank you for use of the facility. Our clients are very willing to enter the doors of a church; it eliminates the barrier of them not receiving care. We've saved a lot of lives.
Allegheny County's Severe Weather Emergency Shelter is open in our church's lower level on nights when the temperature falls below 25°. Operated by Pittsburgh Mercy Health Systems innovative, award-winning outreach program, Operation Safety Net, the shelter offers a warm place to sleep, an evening meal, free clothing and blankets, a hot shower, counseling, and medical services. Last year it served 537 clients, including many who usually prefer sleeping outside to staying in a shelter. Men are housed here at Smithfield, while women are offered separate accommodation at Bethlehem Haven. We spoke with Linda Sheets, the program director, to learn more about the shelter.
GOOD NEWS - Additional funding has made it possible to open the shelter every night during the winter of 2016/2017. This meets an important community need and makes it easier to staff and provided resources at the shelter.