500 people in homelessness to be housed in 500 days, per new Allegheny County plan

“We’re really bringing together the team for this,” says Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County executive, raising a fist as she announces a new collaborative housing effort called “500 in 500” during a press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Thursday, June 6, 2024, in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The “500 in 500” plan aims to combine existing public housing resources, new housing units and conversions of underutilized buildings in effort to house most of those now without permanent shelter.

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Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato announced an initiative to house people staying in shelters by bringing 500 units online in 500 days — less than a year and a half — through various county and city organizations and government institutions already working in the housing and social services fields. 

“Five hundred in 500. That means we’re creating 500 units of deeply affordable housing in the next 500 days,” Innamorato said during Thursday’s announcement event, flanked by several dozen officials representing organizations, government agencies, private landlords and developers that have pledged to support the effort. “Because caring for our unhoused neighbors is a critical piece to ensure that we’re building an Allegheny County for all.”

Innamorato said that she knows what it’s like to experience housing instability. She recounted her father’s struggle with addiction when she was younger. She recalled moving ten times before graduating high school.

“It was a life of uncertainty. A life that no one deserves,” she said. “I want us all to remember that people don’t generally plan to be unhoused. It happens.”

Two individuals embrace warmly in a large hall with arched windows and flags. Several other people are present in the background, engaged in various activities.
Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County executive, gives a hug to Pam Steimer, a former Second Avenue Commons emergency shelter guest who was recently transitioned to an apartment in Brentwood, on June 6 at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh. Steimer recently experienced homelessness and shared her struggle with finding affordable housing in the county over the past year and a half. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

She said that it’s sometimes hard for people to keep up with the rising cost of rent, even if they have jobs. 

“So what [ends up] happening is that people are doubling up in apartments. They’re couch surfing. They’re living in their car. They’re on the street. They’re in our shelter system. And I’ve visited Second Avenue Commons, our low barrier shelter,” she said. “And I was struck by how many people I met who were employed, how many of them were older adults. How many of them were not struggling with severe mental illness or addiction. They were just struggling financially.”

So-called “low needs” individuals without chronic behavioral problems occupied 75% of shelter bed days in Allegheny County in 2023, according to data provided at the announcement event. Almost half of those have some source of income, and most are first-time homeless. Many people entering shelter systems now are not chronically homeless, or suffering from severe mental health issues or addiction, but just can’t afford housing, according to the county.

“Last year, 14% of shelter beds were occupied by people who were in shelter for six months or more. And we need to remember that shelter is not housing long term. It is designed for short stays and for emergency situations,” she said. 

She said that the 500 initiative is for people who are ready to leave a shelter and move on to more stable housing. 

Part of the effort will include services to help those relocated people find jobs and whatever else they may need.

Crews respond to an air conditioner fire on the roof of Second Avenue Commons on June 4, in Uptown. Around 180 people staying in the building’s shelter, overflow shelter and single room occupancy floors were displaced from the building and are being offered temporary shelter at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, said Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County Executive. The fire severely disrupts the system serving people experiencing housing instability. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“The key is to get them out of shelter and somewhere more stable, faster,” she said. “So we can free up shelter beds for other people who need them and over time we can reduce the number of people staying in shelter.”

She said that the county is looking for vacant properties that can be used to rehouse people. 

Along with these efforts, Innamorato noted, are the other various projects underway to chip at the “unaffordable housing crisis,” as U.S. Rep. Summer Lee described it during Thursday’s announcement. Those efforts involve the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], which recently secured an affordable housing bond. The URA plans to announce the availability of bond funds in the coming weeks, according to a URA representative. 

The *Heinz Endowments also announced a $1 million grant that will be used, in part, to help people move out of shelters and into permanent housing. The Buhl Foundation, Eden Hall Foundation and Richard King Mellon Foundation are also supporting the effort.

Innamorato said that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is also financially supporting the effort. 

Lee said she was able to recently advance a $3 million request in the federal budget for the 500 program.

Planning began before transition

In the wake of COVID-19, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the region has risen along with the rest of the country. In the county, there are between 800 and 900 people either using shelters or receiving aid from street outreach teams. According to internal county emails, in 2021, when the county did its annual one-day tally of individuals staying in emergency shelters and experiencing unsheltered homelessness, the number was 574. In 2023, the number was 913.

With shelters in Allegheny County regularly reporting no vacancy, the county previously attempted to alleviate the pressure by opening more shelters even as it opted not to reopen a longstanding winter shelter on Smithfield Street, previously the biggest in Downtown. 

Emails between county officials show that efforts to increase funding and support to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness predates Innamorato’s Jan. 2 inauguration. In November, a meeting was arranged for the following month between county officials and organizations including the Buhl Foundation. The group discussed supporting “deeply affordable/subsidized housing work” and the “Winter Plan and Helping People Exit Shelter,” according to the emails. The group also discussed a goal of identifying 400 or more units over 18 months, for which they would need to raise $10 million. 

A group of four individuals stands inside an arched building, with three clapping while one woman in a checkered blazer holds a document.
From left, Pam Steimer, a person who previously experienced homelessness, Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, listen during an announcement the “500 in 500” effort. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Efforts took further shape in January, as county officials discussed how they could solicit funding from local philanthropic foundations to reduce homelessness.

“We have been having conversations for quite a bit now on the challenges with getting individuals quickly into housing from shelter and to minimize the ‘long stays,’” wrote Andrea Bustos, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS] administrator in charge of resource navigation and community supports, in a March email. “In January 2024 we launched a new suite of supports and services to assist with these challenges with a few of our shelters. … The hope is that these tools and services have been designed in a way that will assist in exploring and identifying all potential housing pathways with individuals to allow for the episode of homelessness to be brief and to end with a successful exit to housing.”

In April emails, county officials discussed meeting with street medicine officials about scaling up outreach efforts and the need for more support staff, specifically social workers. A county crisis prevention and response project manager said that referrals to the street medicine team were needed to support people being discharged from hospitals, the jail and UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. 

Innamorato’s 500 initiative is an attempt to fuse these county resources to reach the initial goal of helping 500 people find stable housing. In doing so, Innamorato is wedding nonprofit efforts of larger development partners including Rising Tide Partners, ACTION Housing and Brandywine Communities with government entities like the city and county housing authorities, which have access to housing vouchers. 

A group of people in business attire engage in conversation, with a woman in a white blazer and another in a black blazer smiling at each other in the foreground.
Sara Innamorato, Allegheny County executive, talks with people supporting a new collaborative effort called “500 in 500” after a press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse on June 6. Officials are working to identify and repurpose space in old nursing homes, motels and convents, as well as building new affordable housing units and incentivizing developers to include affordable units in their new development plans. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“We intentionally designed 500 in 500 to engage with developers and property managers who had a strong track record of successfully managing high quality units of affordable housing,” said Ed Nusser, who recently became the county’s inaugural director of housing strategy.

Innamorato said that the involved organizations are already helping move the needle by committing to providing 75 units. 

“We are ready to sign up more, so contact us if you want to be part of this program,” Innamorato said, referring people to ACDHS. 

How much can vouchers help?

The county will face the challenges and obstacles unique to each of the involved organizations and institutions, including the limits on the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) system. 

One such challenge was on display Wednesday morning as Allegheny County Housing Authority personnel toured the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center, part of a federal network dedicated to providing free career training and education for 16-to-24 year olds who come from low-income households. 

Rich Stephenson, the authority’s chief financial officer, explained to a room of attendees – including a representative from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s office – that he hopes to work with the Job Corps to provide housing vouchers to their graduates. But, he noted, like money, vouchers don’t grow on trees.

“There’s no mechanism to get more vouchers,” Stephenson said, explaining to the group that the county housing authority has about 6,300 vouchers, and only 300 aren’t being fully used.

Stephenson explained on Thursday that the initiative will also draw on the authority’s ability to house people in other ways through public housing owned units. 

The 500 Plan also brings the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh into the mix, relying on its vouchers to pick up some of the people identified as needing housing. The city housing authority faced scrutiny last year over its mishandling of the voucher system that turned landlords away from the system and imperiled tenants who relied on vouchers. The city authority pledged to improve its customer service, and late last year restricted the portability of its vouchers.

A diverse group of people standing together inside a building, many of them clapping. Some people are looking forward while others look at their surroundings.
Caster Binion, far left, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, applauds with other representatives of local government, foundations, nonprofit organizations, regional landlords and developers at press conference announcing a push to identify 500 affordable housing units in the county in 500 days. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In the past, the authority has argued that construction of new housing is more effective than issuing more vouchers. “Unfortunately, our condition in this city is such that if I release 100 vouchers, only 33% will get filled,” city housing authority Executive Director Caster Binion said last year.

The authority has used a special federal designation, called Moving to Work, to reallocate federal funds from vouchers to housing development. Binion has justified this approach by emphasizing the limitations of the voucher system

But now the conversation is coming full circle as Innamorato’s plan relies on already-built housing for people who want to transition out of living in a shelter. 

Lee hailed the county’s approach as coming “from a place of compassion and empathy, and love. And with a people centered mentality.” 

Stanton Heights nursing facility to be repurposed

The 500 effort also involves reclaiming lost housing capacity through partnerships with nonprofits. 

Last year in March, nursing facility Vincentian de Marillac in Stanton Heights closed after providing uncompensated care exceeding $11 million in each of the last three years, which was not sustainable.

The shuttered Vincentian de Marillac nursing home on June 6, in Stanton Heights. Allegheny County officials are considering it as a possible site for housing people experiencing homelessness. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The facility, which had 26 residents at the time of its closure, was run by Vincentian Collaborative System and the organization has agreed to lease the space to Community Human Services, a nonprofit that aims to run a bridge housing program. 

According to internal emails from Alicia Romano, the nonprofit’s CEO, the organization will receive people who are staying in shelters through referrals from ACDHS.  

Community Human Services outlined a few limits on admission, including barring public intoxication and illegal substances on the property.  

Many of Thursday’s speakers noted that Pittsburgh isn’t the only place in the country where people are facing displacement. Lee said Pittsburgh can provide a model for other regions. 

“Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and the federal government are showing the country that we can come together and fight for bold, progressive solutions to some of our most difficult problems that we’re facing right now,” she said. 

*PublicSource receives support from the Eden Hall Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

This article first appeared on PublicSource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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