Editor’s Note: some names have been changed for this story to protect the identities of people who fear their progress toward stable housing may be hindered by their comments.
Related story: Why many seeking housing spend years without shelter
Last week, Mike and Katrina were holding cardboard signs on a busy Pittsburgh road, when someone reached out of their car window and handed them two black backpacks stuffed with winter gear, snacks, and hygiene supplies.
“We don’t even know who they are, they just handed them out the window,” Katrina tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “This stuff helps a lot. We appreciate it.”
Mike and Katrina live in a tent outside, as do a growing share of Allegheny County residents. According to Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, the number of people experiencing homelessness rose by 188 between 2021 and 2022. Of the 880 total people counted in February 2022, 105 were living outside unsheltered. According to city officials, the majority of people living outside in Allegheny County are already on the waitlist for subsidized housing.
While the county offers a variety of services to help people find secure housing, Central Outreach Wellness Center street nurse Johnny Patterson — known to their clients as Nurse Johnny — tells City Paper the “existing resources involve so many hoops to jump through and take such a long amount of time” that many people are forced to fend for themselves for prolonged periods. Katrina and Mike are both on the county waitlist for housing assistance — Katrina has so far waited seven months, and Mike more than a year.
Katrina and Mike are two of several people currently or recently living outside who tell City Paper they struggle to get the things they need to survive, are regularly disrespected and sometimes abused by members of the public, and who plan to continue living outside this winter rather than seeking shelter at the newly-opened Second Avenue Commons.
Katrina, 36, grew up in McKeesport. She says she has a college degree and two kids she hasn’t seen or talked to in a year.
“I lost my job because of COVID, and then both my parents passed away. I had no help from anybody,” she says.
For Katrina and many others, being without stable housing compounds every other problem.
“If I had somewhere to live, I'd be able to see my kids or get a stable job. Like, I can't go to work if I can't get a shower … it's so hard even in the city to find somewhere to go to the bathroom. No one will let you in and just use the bathroom,” Katrina says. “I’m so glad I met [Mike]. It’s good not to be out here by myself.”
Mike and Katrina met through mutual friends before they began experiencing homelessness. Mike, 39, hails from a town outside Allentown, PA, and was previously incarcerated for 16 years.
They live off what they get asking for money at various fly spots — places selected for “flying a sign,” in the language of the homeless community — and will go into withdrawal from their opioid use disorder relatively quickly if they’re unable to source any.
“We get sick like every four hours,” Mike says. “We have no choice but to go panhandle or we’ll be here, profusely sick.”
When drivers roll down their windows, it could be to offer help, but Katrina and Mike have also been on the receiving end of drivers’ anger and derision.
“Somebody spit on me the other day,” Katrina says. “He acted like he was going to give me money out of his window, and he put his hand out the window and spit at me. It’s degrading enough for me to stand there holding the sign,” she says, but “a lot of people give you dirty looks or say shit out their windows.”
Finesse, a man who was living in a tent by the Allegheny River earlier this year, says “men will pull their penises out” when he approaches them.
Even though their circumstances are difficult, Katrina and Mike say they frequently go out of their way to help other people going through hard times. On their way back to their tent at the end of the day, they will often give a few dollars to other people they pass.
“We’ve had so many people look down on us, too, sometimes that dollar just helps bring somebody’s day up,” Katrina says.
“We try and live by certain ways so we stay blessed,” Mike adds.
Mike says people treat him and Katrina poorly and look down on them because it is assumed they only want drug money. “That’s not all we want,” he says. “We are human beings, plain and simple.”
They say the hardest part of living unsheltered has been being mostly unable to wash themselves. Katrina gets lost in thought considering the luxury of a daily shower.
“To be able to take a hot shower and shit every day, that would be, oh my god—” she trails off.
Mike and Katrina also haven’t been able to wash their clothing since they’ve been living unsheltered. When they have to move their tent, they bring their dirty laundry with them in trash bags.
Patterson says a trash bag can be an unexpectedly valuable tool for people living outside.
“I think that people are like, ‘Why would anybody outside need a trash bag?’” Patterson tells CP, noting that people living outside often use them as suitcases. Trash bags can also help someone living in a tent avoid attracting unwanted attention, Patterson says. “Two of the biggest things that attract the police, in [my] experience are visible trash at your camp and animals that are not well trained.”
Service providers at Second Avenue Commons have designed the shelter to reduce barriers between people who are homeless and available resources. For example, although drug use is not allowed in the building, intoxicated individuals will not be turned away, and people can store whatever they want, including intoxicants, in private lockers.
The shelter accepts pets and couples, and the terms of the county’s 2021 Request for Proposals specifies it will focus on underserved communities like Black and LGBTQ+ Pittsburghers. The facility also offers weekday access to showers and laundry facilities, although several people experiencing homelessness, including Mike and Katrina, say those services would be more accessible if they were mobile or available in more than one location.
Despite these accommodations, people living unsheltered who talked with CP about the new facility shared reservations about staying at the new facility.
Arabella, a gender non-conforming person from Greene County who was staying outside at a remote spot on the North Side when they spoke with City Paper this summer, says they have frequently encountered homophobia and transphobia in the region’s shelter system. They say their gender “is always the first issue,” whenever they have tried to access emergency or temporary housing in the past.
This is especially troubling, Patterson points out, because research estimates 20-40% of people experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+, despite LGBTQ+ people making up less than 10% of the U.S. population. Arabella is also one of two individuals who told City Paper they have experienced sexual assault in a local shelter.
On the day of their interview with CP, Arabella’s presentation was a mix of masculine and feminine. They wore baggy shorts, a T-shirt, blue eye makeup, and a pink headscarf. “I'm Miss Butch Drag, so I kind of got that awkward presence, you know, and I just get stared at and stared at and stared at, I’m like ‘Stop looking at me! You have no legitimate business with me, you just don’t like the way I appear.’”
After more than a year on the housing assistance waitlist, Arabella moved into a transitional housing unit this fall and is reportedly still living there.
Aaron, 40, a Black, gay man on the Autism spectrum with severe heart disease and a passion for amusement parks found himself homeless in an unfamiliar city this February when his family drove him from Cleveland to Pittsburgh and left him here. He told CP he’s been living outside while he navigates the difficulty of accessing social services without his birth certificate or social security card.
“The hardest thing is getting the records from Cleveland,” he says. “Who’s on the street like, ‘I have my fancy piece of paper with me!’”
Aaron set up camp outside rather than go to a shelter, telling CP he recently had a brush with human traffickers at a West Virginia shelter.
Since people living unsheltered are more likely to have police contact than those in shelters or stable housing, Katrina and Mike are two of many unsheltered people with arrest warrants who stay away from shelters for that reason. Instead of going to Second Avenue Commons, they have decided to take their chances with the winter weather.
“It was fucking cold last winter,” which Mike says was his first outside. “I remember my first couple of nights was in the middle of a snowstorm, and I'm in two sleeping bags with my boots on, and my feet were still frozen. I think I might still have frostbite.”
Patterson says winter can be an extra dangerous time for IV drug users like Mike and Katrina.
“Because you're in the cold, your veins constrict, and so people miss a lot more. We see a lot more abscesses in the wintertime. So honestly, what people need is a warm, safe place where they can use,” they say.
Patterson is often asked to describe the demographics of unhoused people they work with, a difficult task, they say, because “there is so much individual variation in terms of people's circumstances, [you can’t] paint everybody with a broad brush.
“In this world where there's so much precarity and so many people are living paycheck to paycheck, we are all one adverse life event” from being houseless.
Jailbreak, Pittsburgh’s jail support collective, is collecting donations to be split evenly among Katrina, Mike, Arabella, and Aaron. If you would like to contribute to the fund, send money via Venmo to @jailbreakpgh with the note “City Paper.”