Why many seeking housing spend years without shelter | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why many seeking housing spend years without shelter

click to enlarge A green tent set up in the woods near a path
CP Photo: Pat Cavanagh

Just days after a large low-barrier homeless shelter opened in Downtown Pittsburgh, officials reported the facility had reached full capacity.

But this is just one kink in the system, as backlogs in long-term housing programs have been rising steadily since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of people living outside in Pittsburgh are already on the waitlist for subsidized housing, according to Maria Montaño, spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

Multiple people living outside in Allegheny County tell Pittsburgh City Paper that you can’t get housing through the Allegheny Link, the single access point for homeless services in Allegheny County, unless you have been living outside unsheltered for 12 consecutive months and that even after spending a year outside, long waits may remain.

Abigail Horn, the director of the Allegheny County Continuum of Care for people experiencing houselessness, tells City Paper the 12 months outside guideline isn’t a hard and fast rule, but since the Continuum of Care prioritizes people who are chronically unhoused and the demand for subsidized housing is so high, people who haven’t been unhoused for a year or more may not get to the front of the line. Conversely, Horn says, because the CoC does prioritize people with higher risk factors such as living unsheltered, sometimes people living outside do get placed quickly.

The county CoC is a huge system, Horn says, involving some 30 agencies providing more than 70 different programs including “homeless prevention, street outreach, emergency shelters, bridge housing, rapid rehousing, and supportive housing.

“We fund providers in all of those areas. And then for some of those, there are also providers that we don't even fund that we all coordinate with.”

Some city officials suggest a lack of transitional housing units — temporary places individuals and families can live for up to 24 months while they transition to more permanent housing— is what’s slowing down the CoC system.

Horn offers a different diagnosis. “It’s landlords,” she tells CP.

Although the county partners with “some really, really great landlords,” Horn says, DHS has money for permanent supportive housing that goes unspent because they can’t find enough landlords willing to accept formerly unhoused people as tenants, even though DHS-referred tenants come with a caseworker to mediate possible issues and a guaranteed subsidy.