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Operation Safety Net to House Homeless on S. Side

Tuesday, July 13, 2010
By Meredith Skrzypczak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Moving from riverbanks and alleyways into apartments with bedrooms and bathrooms will become a reality for 16 homeless individuals currently living on the streets of Allegheny County.

The move will be made possible by a federal grant awarded to a local agency last week for construction of housing on the South Side.

Operation Safety Net, which provides services such as medical treatment for the homeless, received $1.69 million for the construction of Trail Lane Apartments on Ninth Street on the South Side.

Operation Safety Net is sponsored by Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. The money is part of $14 million in funding across Pennsylvania announced last week by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. A total of $3.3 million was given to agencies in Allegheny County to address homelessness in the area.

The apartment program will help the chronic homeless population, said Linda Sheets, program director for Operation Safety Net. These are individuals who have been living on the streets for at least one year and have some mental illness, she said.

They are often the most difficult to reach and house, but Ms. Sheets said she is expecting full occupancy in the apartments by summer of 2011. Case managers and social workers for the agency already have high-risk individuals in mind who would be good candidates for the housing.

Ms. Sheets said she is most excited about “giving each one of these individuals a chance to have a place of their own.”

Housing will be offered to the 16 individuals for as long as they choose to stay. Staff will help them look for employment and apply for disability income. Once they get a job or are approved for disability, they will be asked to pay 30 percent of their income to cover program fees, which results in a type of rent payment.

A sort of “haven” for the homeless, the apartments will be located on the third floor of a new building, with administrative and training offices on the second floor and a primary care physician and dentist office on the first.

The services provided will not be mandatory, nor are the homeless required to stay, but Ms. Sheets said she hopes the residents will take advantage of the services such as mental health care.

“When a street homeless person leaves the streets and enters into a housing unit we’re very pleased,” she said. “However, when they also want to receive the additional treatment, that keeps them from returning to the streets.”

Over a two-year period, the total cost for the apartments and associated staffing costs will be just over $2 million. Construction could begin as soon as this summer, said Mike Lindsay, housing program administrator for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Mercy applied for the grant in mid-2009, he said.

Ninth Street already is home to Mercy Behavioral Health facilities with a pharmacy, shopping and grocery stores nearby. The location is ideal for the 16 future apartment residents looking to become more integrated into the community, Ms. Sheets said.

Some residents in the neighborhood said the inclusion of the apartments for the homeless would be an “over-saturation,” given the existing facilities in the area.

Nancy Wells, 62, a South Side resident, said she agrees with the cause but would not support a homeless population moving onto her street.

“I feel this area is already contributing to helping people in the community,” she said.

A nearby bridge has anywhere from five to 20 people living underneath on a given day, said Ziad Khalil, owner of Zeeno’s, located just minutes from where the apartments would be built. Mr. Khalil would support any program that might lower that number even if it means homeless individuals moving into his area. He said it could bring “positive change.”

Earlier in the year, Jane Miller, director of community and government relations for Mercy Behavioral Health, conducted community meetings to gauge residents’ reactions.

“Nobody came,” she said.

Since then, there has been no opposition, Ms. Miller said, and soon-to-be neighbors of the homeless shouldn’t be worried.

“We share the world with people with mental illness,” she said. “People who are coming here are being treated.”

Dr. Jim Withers, medical director and founder of Operation Safety Net, said this is just the start of support for the homeless.

“You can get people from the streets into housing, but that’s just the beginning of the story.”

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