The use of two temporary shelters during the run-up to last week's Major League Baseball All-Star Game demonstrates the rift between perception and reality when it comes to the city's homeless. One, set up by traditional service providers and volunteers, was teeming with homeless people who simply wished to keep their place in town until baseball fandom went back into retreat. The other, organized by Allegheny County human-services officials for an influx of drunks ... either homeless or visiting from far-off homes ... remained empty.
Nearly 100 homeless men and women packed the Smithfield United Church of Christ every day from July 7 through 12. During that time, the Downtown shelter was run by social-service providers from Oakland-based Community Human Services and Operation Safety Net, an affiliate of Mercy Hospital Uptown. Some of the homeless came from other area shelters for a change of scenery. Many, however, professed that a fear of arrest drove them underground.
"Rumor was going around that we would be arrested" if we didn't get out, says a homeless man who would give out only his first name, Jeff, speaking the night after the July 11 All-Star Game. He and a friend said they were chased from the North Shore by police during a clean-up days before All-Star Week; the two felt they had no choice but to spend the next two nights in the windowless church basement. When Jeff and several other homeless men reclaimed the promenade in front of the Del Monte building, they relaxed on the benches and bathed in the breeze brushing across the once-again serene Allegheny.
Mac McMahon, the homeless-outreach team leader with Community Human Services who coordinated the makeshift shelter, says he worried that the heat could pose a challenge in a church basement: The space is normally used as an emergency shelter in winter, for nights when temperatures reach 20 degrees or below.
"The biggest concern I had was about the physical environment," says McMahon. "It became an issue during the last day or two." Bedrolls and sleeping pads filled the main basement space, the church's basketball court and gymnasium. Two electric fans stirred the still air. When night fell and the police presence outside thinned, some of the homeless sat out on the sidewalks to cool off. Many more, though, stayed in to enjoy the rare conviviality of watching TV and playing cards. McMahon says he had to break up a small fight one night, but knows of no other troubles.
The scene was a sharp contrast to the ad hoc drop-off center arranged by the county Department of Human Services for intoxicated homeless or visitors. The Salvation Army shelter on North Avenue, staffed by county-paid medical personnel, stayed open from noon July 10 till the start of the game Tuesday to house any drunks picked up by police, but there were no such arrests, says Pittsburgh Police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin.
DHS Director Marc Cherna estimated that the two shelters together cost the county a few thousand dollars. "There were a lot of unknowns," says Cherna. "I'm a big proponent of 'be prepared.'"
Providers serving the homeless say that, even though the fanfare is over, the onus is still on county and city officials to commit themselves to a longer-term solution to helping the homeless. Some point out that during the year since the county finalized its "Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness," in May 2005, not much had been done until the All-Star Game rolled along.
"We just ignore the situation the rest of the year," says McMahon. "You can't keep Band-Aiding this."