Smithfield United Church of Christ leaders break silence after county closes homeless shelter

By Matt Glover

Allegheny County Department of Human Services closed the Smithfield United Church of Christ homeless shelter in June due to lack of air conditioning, but church employees say taxpayer dollars are still being spent a month later to cool a space nobody occupies.

Parish administrator and former church council president Jon Colburn was authorized by DHS to bring air conditioners into the shelter on May 22, the same day DHS announced it would close due to lack of central air. 

Colburn was confused why DHS, after investing thousands in the well-being of the shelter’s residents, would send them out into the heat. 

When the county acquired the air conditioners, they were already paid for through July, DHS spokesperson Mark Bertolet said. Each month costs DHS over $7,000 to rent for two months. 

Further, DHS did not renew Smithfield’s annual contract and has not informed the church if the shelter will open for winter shelter season, which runs  from November to March. Discussions between DHS Director Erin Dalton and the church have stalled, Colburn said; it’s not clear whether the Smithfield  shelter will reopen or if an alternative, low-barrier location will be used.  

“At this time, we do not have anything to add regarding what will be happening with Smithfield going forward, as any discussions are still in the preliminary stages,” Bertolet said. 

Susan Cherian, one of Smithfield’s associate ministers who has been with the church for 22 years, and is a practicing psychologist, recalled the shelter’s origins.

About 40 years ago, the shelter began on Christmas Eve when a minister offered shelter to a woman who was sleeping on the church steps.  The church opened its doors then, and the shelter was born. In July, a woman gave birth less than a block away from the church. Activists speculate that, because the Smithfield shelter was such a prominent shelter, the woman went to the place where she thought it was likely she would have received help. But she arrived after they were forced to shut.

While Smithfield provided the shelter space, the county contracted with Team PSBG to operate the shelter. The independent, grassroots project’s employees carry narcan and other supplies for the homeless, and they also operate the McKeesport Downtown Housing Winter Shelter. 

“We have not heard anything about reopening Smithfield in the winter or an alternative downtown winter shelter,” Team PSBG founder and lead advocate Aubrey Plesh said.  

Cooling Options

DHS purchased the air conditioners for the shelter to keep the nearly 100-year-old building cool. These were necessary because the building does not have central air throughout, and in January of 2023, after the Pittsburgh City Council declared homelessness a public health emergency, DHS asked the shelter to stay open for the summer. 

The gymnasium where shelter residents sleep is humid and can get up around 80 degrees  in the warmer months, Colburn said; the air conditioners were supposed to be a back-up plan. 

The first option was for the church to get estimates on a new central air system. Colburn said the renovations would cost about $100,000 and could take up to 14 months. Negotiations never got as far as where funding would come from, but the church and county partnered in 2021 to fund other health and safety improvements to Smithfield. 

DHS did not respond to requests for comment regarding how much of the $100,000 bill it may have covered. 

After 40 years of running the shelter, funding was cut. Church staff, volunteers and activists are left with an empty gymnasium and a lot of questions.  

“I’m pretty convinced the decision (to close the shelter) came from the county executive level with such a precipitous turnaround,” Colburn said. 

DHS also cut funding for Team PSBG’s shelter employees at the end of June after the shelter closed. That portion of the contract lasted two months and was supposed to be valid until February 2024. 

Cherian said Team PSBG employees at times were forced to do hospital work at the shelter like keeping an overdosed person alive through the night. Cherian and Colburn agreed Plesh’s character requires all who come for help to be sheltered even if the shelter is at capacity.

A History of Helping

“All of the sudden, we’re not in this mission anymore, which was a mission for years,” Cherian said. 

Smithfield takes pride in being a low-barrier shelter, which means residents can stay as long as they are not actively using substances. Cherian said Jesus tells us to feed the hungry and treat all populations equitably. The church worked toward this mission through the pandemic, and they planned to continue as long as there was a population to serve. 

DHS asked Smithfield in early 2021 to remain open through June to accommodate the number of unhoused people after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second Avenue Commons, a more modern shelter, was scheduled to open at the start of the winter shelter season on Nov. 15, 2022. However, the shelter did not open until November 22 due to permitting issues and materials shortages caused by the pandemic, according to Bertolet. It was not operating at full capacity on the day scheduled for opening.

“There was no one that I know of who was dealing with the unhoused in the city who, even for a moment, thought Second Avenue Commons was going to be the ‘be all, end all’ that it was purported to be,” Colburn said. 

When DHS discovered Second Avenue Commons would not open on time, they gave Smithfield three days to open its doors, despite having been told in March 2022 that it would not have to operate. Even after Second Avenue opened, it quickly filled and Smithfield remained open.

“You can’t give something you don’t have, and that’s never a Christian expectation,” Colburn said. “But, if you can have it, and you can give it, you must.” 

After DHS found shelter spaces for 125 Smithfield residents, Colburn counted an additional 120 individuals still outside Smithfield the day after the shelter closed, but without help from DHS, the church cannot afford the increased maintenance and potential liability that comes with housing a shelter. 

Colburn argues the other closest shelters, Light of Life Rescue Mission and Second Avenue Commons, are not close enough to the heart of downtown, not where the people are and not low-barrier. Light of Life is closer to the North Side near Veterans Bridge, and Second Avenue Commons is on the edge of the Monongahela River beside the Allegheny County Jail. 

“If not Smithfield, then where? The church’s position has always been there has to be a shelter in downtown Pittsburgh,” he said. 

Photography and story by Matt Glover, a Pittsburgh Media Partnership editorial intern. He is a senior at Slippery Rock University.