Smithfield shelter closure limits resources for homeless downtown

Pittsburgh community members step up after Allegheny County Department of Human Services closes shelter despite public outcry

Matt Glover

Under a small overhang in the pouring rain outside Smithfield United Church of Christ, Kim Paquet, 53, asked if she was visibly bruised on her face after having a seizure and falling in the street the previous day. 

She was bruised and scratched. 

Paquet has been unhoused since November. Her seizures and anemia made her a candidate for a room at Second Avenue Commons, a multi-million dollar around-the-clock adult shelter that opened downtown last winter.

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services permanently closed the Smithfield United Church of Christ overnight shelter where she was staying—which sleeps more than 200 residents per night—on June 21 leaving more than 25 people unhoused. 

At the June 15 Allegheny County Council hearing regarding the Smithfield shelter closing, ACDHS had identified 125 individuals who commonly used the Smithfield shelter for longer than one week at a time, according to homeless services administrator Andy Halfhill. 

“There are certainly a lot of people who use the shelter,” he said at the hearing. “The vast majority of people who use the shelter have used it for less than a week … most people stay for one or two days.” 

At the time, ACDHS had placed 60 Smithfield shelter residents at other shelters and offered 80 people alternative housing. Paquet was not one of those 60 and still spends most of her day outside Smithfield United Church of Christ. 

“For those who most frequently used the shelter, spaces were found in our current system, including opening some overflow spaces at existing shelters,” Mark Bertolet, a spokesperson for ACDHS, said. “And we continue to build out our shelter capacity, as well as expand our efforts to move people into more stable housing.”

Second Avenue Commons began setting up overflow spaces for Smithfield shelter residents the night it closed, but residents filling overflow spaces did not receive a meal because beds opened after dinner were located in the cafeteria, according to Elizabeth Shonker, who is not homeless but often helped people outside the Smithfield shelter. 

Paquet wants to find resources but does not own a phone and has never encountered a mobile crisis team, which was launched by ACDHS and resolve Crisis Services, operated by UPMC, on June 15 in downtown Pittsburgh. The teams are trained to handle a variety of requests and services including de-escalation, welfare checks, emergency counseling, suicide assessments and nonviolent conflict resolution, according to ACDHS. 

However, Paquet sees community members and activists offer resources in their place almost daily. Bridge Outreach and 1Hood, a social justice and anti-censorship mission, gave tents to people outside Smithfield throughout the week when the shelter closed. Smithfield shelter employees still hand out water despite its closing, and others often bring food. 

The night before the shelter closed, activist Lorenzo Rulli said he paid about $300 for 13 pizzas to be delivered outside Smithfield. Pitt master’s student Megan Pellechio, who met Rulli on Twitter and served food with him outside the shelter every week, gave away clothes, bags and jackets. 

Lorenzo Rulli and Megan Pellechio served pizza outside Smithfield United Church of Christ on June 20. Residents appreciated the gesture, and a long line formed. 

Some Smithfield residents need to be downtown, so moving them is not an option, Rulli said. 

“They’re going to exist on our streets in front of our stores and in our market squares no matter what,” he said. 

The day the shelter closed, Mia Pizza sent two free, extra large pizzas to the shelter worth about $50, the delivery driver told Pittsburgh Institute For Nonprofit Journalism at the scene. 

The same day, Smithfield shelter employee Amanda Fry said there were only 10 beds remaining at other shelters that  ACDHS  offered. Five shelters offering those beds had a curfew of 7:30 p.m. She prioritized filling those beds with residents who had medical needs. She also received conflicting answers from Second Avenue Commons regarding who was on their overflow list. 

Multiple Smithfield shelter residents told PINJ the closure forces them further away from their downtown jobs and lengthens their commutes. Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s outreach team, which focuses on addressing and managing panhandling and homeless issues downtown, implemented a shuttle service the week the shelter closed to take residents to other shelters and kitchens, according to outreach employee John Holzer. The shuttle will operate for approximately 90 days. 

The shuttle frequently stops at Second Avenue Commons where Paquet stayed for less than a week after Smithfield shelter closed. At the June 15 hearing, one public commenter who did not reveal his name said he was kicked out of Second Avenue Commons after security personnel pulled a knife on him and called him slurs. He did not explain what led to the situation. 

Raymond, another commenter at the hearing who didn’t give his last name, said he was suspended from Second Avenue Commons because his mouth was too “analytical” and “political.” 

Paquet was raised in a military family that taught her to mind her manners but left Second Avenue Commons because she thought her mouth and temper would eventually get her kicked out, so she remains unhoused.  

“I can give you a house, but if you don’t have strong life skills, you’re going to fail, “Rulli said. “That is a failure of the system all over again.”