Allegheny County’s new shelter to take ‘low-barrier’ approach to couples, pets and substance use

Construction continues on Second Avenue Commons as photographed on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, Downtown. The Pittsburgh facility will be Allegheny County’s first low-barrier shelter. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

While offering connections to recovery services, Second Avenue Commons won’t mandate sobriety, search clients or ask what’s in their “amnesty lockers.”

by Amelia Winger, PublicSource

Update (11/22/22): After several weeks of delays, the Second Avenue Commons low-barrier shelter has opened, with 95 beds and space for an additional 30 overflow beds. The Commons began moving people into its single-resident occupancy units last week, and plans to open its day program and primary care clinic on Nov. 23 at 9 a.m.
In light of the Commons’ delayed opening, the county opened an additional low-barrier winter shelter last week at the Smithfield United Church of Christ in Downtown. It will continue operating this additional shelter from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Reported 8/17/22: After three years of planning and construction, the Second Avenue Commons facility, in Downtown, is slated to open at the beginning of October, providing services like a health clinic and day program for adults experiencing homelessness across Allegheny County. 

Planning for the five-story facility began in 2019, helmed by PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation along with partners including Highmark Health and UPMC. Earlier this summer, the facility’s operators announced intentions to open the shelter in mid-September, but that has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues. 

The facility is Allegheny County’s first “low-barrier” shelter and will offer 95 beds year-round, with up to an additional 40 available in the winter. The shelter will aim to assist any adult seeking housing, including people in relationships, people with pets and people actively using drugs.

“There’s so many factors that lead to homelessness, and our goal is always to meet people where they are, judgment free,” said Michael Turk, vice president of community and wellness services for Pittsburgh Mercy, the shelter’s operator. “We’re here to help.”

The shelter’s operators particularly want to serve people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. They recognize that the decision to become sober often hinges upon having access to housing and, while prohibiting substance use within the facility, they won’t conduct searches and will provide “amnesty lockers” for possessions that aren’t allowed inside.

Construction continues on the Second Avenue Commons , Downtown Pittsburgh.(Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The county’s Department of Human Services selected Pittsburgh Mercy as the shelter’s operator after soliciting proposals in April 2021. A community health and wellness provider, the organization has previous experience operating homeless services like the Winter Shelter and Operation Safety Net, an outreach team that provides basic medical care and necessities to people experiencing homelessness. 

Across Allegheny County, 880 people were experiencing homelessness as of the county’s most recent point-in-time count

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