Smithfield shelter will close tomorrow with support from Downtown businesses, despite public outcry | Pittsburgh City Paper

Smithfield shelter will close tomorrow with support from Downtown businesses, despite public outcry

click to enlarge Smithfield shelter will close tomorrow with support from Downtown businesses, despite public outcry
CP Photo: Lucy Chen
The Smithfield United Church of Christ in Downtown Pittsburgh

Tonight will be the last night that unhoused guests of the shelter operated at Smithfield United Church of Christ will be permitted to seek shelter there, despite vociferous public opposition voiced during a public hearing last week.

The shelter, located in the gymnasium of the Smithfield United Church of Christ, provides a low-barrier place for people experiencing homelessness to sleep each night and typically operates only during the winter. Guests at the shelter emphasize the value of Smithfield offering an accessible place to spend the night where staff won’t turn them away. It was one of two low-barrier homeless shelters in the city of Pittsburgh.

This year, the Department of Human Services had decided to keep the Smithfield shelter open indefinitely due to increased demand. On May 22, however, DHS announced that the temporary overnight shelter would close at the end of June 2023, sparking confusion and outcry.

Last week, Allegheny County Council held a public hearing regarding the planned closure, despite President Pat Catena’s acknowledgement that the body lacked authority to override the Department of Human Services.

The hearing offered council members and the larger public the opportunity to ask questions of municipal officials, as well as other stakeholders in the region’s homelessness crisis.

Council member Bethany Hallam, who called for the hearing during a June 6 meeting, questioned county officials about how they selected June 20 as the shelter’s last night of operation, calling the date “arbitrary.”

Jennifer Liptak, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s chief of staff and county manager, declined to explain the rationale for the timeline, instead replying, “That’s the date that makes the most sense.”

Some officials expressed frustration that they were not looped into discussions about the closure plans before they were made public. Hallam had previously said that county council was not consulted regarding the closure. Pittsburgh’s chief operating and administrative officer Lisa Frank and Aubrey Plesh of Team PSBG — the group that operates the shelter — similarly said at the hearing that they were not involved in the decision. Members of the public, including Plesh, criticized the process as lacking in transparency.

To mitigate the loss of the Smithfield shelter, Andy Halfhill, the county’s administrator of homelessness services, told council that DHS has added 112 new beds to already existing shelters, namely Second Avenue Commons, Light of Life, and East End Cooperative Ministries, and that they anticipate the opening of a new shelter in Homewood. The operator of the Homewood facility, however, told PublicSource that the new facility will require a county referral and demonstrated “desire to exit homelessness.”

In a May 31 press release, DHS said the agency chose to focus their efforts on finding other shelter beds for a group of “roughly 100-125 people who stay at Smithfield more than a few days per month.

During last week’s hearing, Halfhill said DHS has been able to relocate roughly 60 former guests of the Smithfield shelter to beds at other shelters throughout the county. Plesh previously estimated that 600 unique individuals used the shelter over a recent 30-day period.

“The question council needs to be asking is ‘What about all the other people?’” Plesh said last week.

Also at the hearing were representatives of Downtown business owners who said they supported the closure of Smithfield because it wasn’t meeting the needs of the whole community.

Jerad Bachar of tourism organization Visit Pittsburgh said he had received a “strong uptick of complaints” about aggressive panhandling, aggression and violence Downtown and “concern about the safety and security of Downtown,” as well as its “general cleanliness.”

Citing that guests at Smithfield must leave the premises every morning and that Smithfield doesn’t offer additional services beyond a meal and a bed and is located in an old building, Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership said, “As it stands, the Smithfield shelter is not adequately meeting the needs of anyone.”

Bachar and Waldrup voiced their support of the shelter’s closure, and several public commenters — some of whom are property owners or managers Downtown — agreed.

Even while some acknowledged conditions there are less than ideal, public comments from unhoused people shed light on the unique role the Smithfield shelter has filled in the county’s shelter system.

As a low-barrier shelter, Smithfield provides a more accessible and welcoming environment than other area shelters, public commenters stressed.

“I just got kicked out of Second Avenue shelter after a security guard pulled out a knife on me and another one called me a faggot about four times. Every time I go to Smithfield I feel like I get compassion, I get treated like a human being,” said a public commenter who did not identify themselves.

Another commenter, Chase Archer Evans, a person experiencing homelessness who serves on the county’s Homeless Advisory Board, told council, “you can’t even go to Light of Life mission to get a meal without valid identification.”

A spokesperson for Light of Life Rescue Mission contested this, saying the organization's policy it to always admit people for food and shelter without requiring identification.

Ultimately, many commentators questioned the point of holding the hearing, at all, given that Catena had said that county council lacked the authority to override the decision to close the shelter.

“Although I appreciate the invitation to come in front of you to speak, I’m a little upset and irritated and peeved that the decision has already been made to close the shelter, which my comrades and I wonder, what are we even speaking for?” asked Muhammad Ali Nasir of 1Hood Media and Community Care and Resistance in Pittsburgh, an organization that does regular outreach to people experiencing homelessness in Pittsburgh and provides them with direct material support.

Two county council members introduced motions suggesting possible paths forward for the county to address homelessness.

Council member Nick Futules introduced a motion urging Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to work with the city to consider converting the old Veterans Administration hospital complex in Lincoln-Larimer into affordable housing.

Council president Pat Catena introduced a motion urging the county to consider whether elements of Houston, Texas’s successful approach to ending homelessness would be viable here.

There was also broad consensus between business owners and advocates for the unhoused that there is a need for public bathrooms in Downtown Pittsburgh. Although county council has not taken formal steps forward on this issue, Hallam expressed eagerness to work with all parties to bring that to fruition.

UPDATE: This story was updated to include a comment from Light of Life Rescue Mission clarifying the organization's position on identification.

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