Jamar plopped a chessboard atop his red charcoal grill on a March morning as he sat across the street from Smithfield United Church of Christ, just minutes after ambulances sped down the street. He spent the previous night at the church’s shelter, and as people trickled out of the building that morning, another shelter client lay in a nearby intersection with his face bleeding and shoes strewn behind him. 

In the aftermath of chaos, he focused on the board in front of him, daring an opponent to challenge him to a match.  

“Chess is the game of life,” he said. “Your wit is the only weapon that will never fail you.”

PublicSource is withholding Jamar’s legal name, and those of other people experiencing homelessness, where identification could likely result in negative consequences.

Jamar frequently stays at Smithfield, alongside his friends. In the mornings, he cleans a nearby alley, picking up garbage and pouring bleach on the spots where people urinate. In the afternoons, he heads to the North Side, where he cooks his own skillet recipes and throws hot dogs on the grill for anyone who stops by. 

Staying at Smithfield, he said, is a “blessing.”

“They don’t care about your cigarettes or anything like that,” he said. “They don’t care what you’re doing. They will save you regardless. They will treat you right.”

People leave the Smithfield Unified Church of Christ shelter as dawn breaks on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Downtown. Guests must leave by 7 a.m., when the space gets cleaned and switched over for use by a school. The shelter has been reporting “at capacity” through the 2022-2023 winter, confirmed Team PSBG’s Aubrey Plesh, who leads its operation. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Shelter Stakes
As homelessness surged, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh scrambled, and those without shelter tried to adapt. Explore our investigative series.

The venerable Smithfield winter shelter is one of two “low-barrier” facilities — now joined by Second Avenue Commons — that opened in Pittsburgh this winter to provide people experiencing homelessness with warm spaces to sleep without cumbersome entry requirements, like sobriety or identification. 

Both facilities reflect an unprecedented effort to address the results of the housing crisis, but the county’s first winter with two low-barrier shelters revealed important differences in the shelter operators’ models and approaches. For those who rely on them, the new array of choices — Smithfield and Second Avenue Commons — spurred discussion of values and tradeoffs compared to tent encampments: autonomy versus safety, warmth against possessions, communities of choice or the social conflicts inherent in congregate settings.

Second Avenue Commons added both shelter capacity and new concerns.

Emails from several Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] employees — who were paid to fill in at Second Avenue Commons during a cold snap in late December — illustrate the challenges of low-barrier housing and county concerns with operator Pittsburgh Mercy’s approach. The emails describe security issues, including lack of leadership and bedbugs, among other problems about a month into the shelter’s operations.

“DHS staff were left feeling really concerned about what they observed: Mercy staff preparedness and competency, staff feeling burned out, and safety,” wrote Andy Halfhill, administrator of Homeless Services for DHS, in an email to Pittsburgh Mercy leadership staff, summarizing experiences of about eight DHS staff members.

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