Homelessness in Pittsburgh


By Emma Solak / Staff Writer

Fifty-nine-year-old Kevin S. Thomas doesn’t stand on the corner of Forbes and Atwood because he wants money. He stands there because he needs something to do.

Thomas, formerly a member of the homeless population of Pittsburgh, now has an apartment in the Hill District and receives food stamps. Although Thomas didn’t want to specify when he first received food stamps, he said he still chooses to stand on the street in the freezing weather because he likes people and just wants someone to talk to. Most people don’t stop to chat with him, he said, but he appreciates when they take the time to do so.

Thomas said his time being homeless was rough.

“What I didn’t like about it was at the shelters. They only served food at a certain time, so you had to be on time or you didn’t get food,” he said. “I didn’t like that. You people can just go to your fridge whenever you want.”

While Thomas managed to get himself off the streets, according to a 2010 Allegheny County Department of Human Services report, thousands of people in Pittsburgh are not as fortunate.

According to the report, 2,033 people who received services from the Department of Human Services, Office of Community Services or Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services were classified as homeless.

Each person cited in the report received at least one service from the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter, an emergency shelter sponsored by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and Pittsburgh Mercy Health System’s Operation Safety Net, between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept. 31, 2008 in Allegheny County. 

Sixty-three percent of the homeless population were male while 36 percent were female. Forty-eight percent were black, 27 percent white and the races of the remaining percentages were unaccounted for. The mean age of a homeless person was 40 years old. 

For nearly half the population, it was their first time being homeless in the past three years and they had only been homeless for less than one month.

The total cost determined for serving the studied homeless population in Allegheny County was $10.3 million. Sixty percent of the money from the Office of Community Services and Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services goes toward helping with mental health issues that may lead to homelessness.

Lynnetta Ward, program manager of Operation Safety Net, works to provide health-related services to the homeless.

According to Ward, Operation Safety Net, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and Trinity Health, is a street medicine program that delivers medical care to the homeless population under the bridges and in homeless camps in Pittsburgh. The program expanded to help clients find homes, assist with paying rent or avoiding eviction and help the mentally and physically ill.

Funded by the government and private donations, a team of volunteer physicians and nurses, including interning medical students, provide the homeless with basic medical services such as foot care, blood pressure checks and wound care.

“We don’t do anything too invasive,” Ward said, “because it’s not a sterile environment under the bridge. Anything life-threatening, the paramedics are called for, and the same goes with mental health crises.” 

Ward said she has benefited from her work with the homeless, making it a kind of symbiotic relationship.

“I’ve learned most that I didn’t understand the depth and how different one is,” she said. “It’s very easy to see it as a one size fits all, but if you look at it that way you’re doing that person a disservice. I feel wiser and better able to serve because I offer a perspective on how to effectively serve this population.”

Jordan Kurzum’s interactions with homeless people began before he even came to Pitt. Kurzum worked independently to provide the homeless with what they needed most — company. 

“It’s about spending time as opposed to giving money,” Kurzum, a sophomore Spanish major, said. “In my experience, there’s so much you can learn from them. They have a different perspective on life. It’s a tough experience being on the street, and they’ve gone through impossible life struggles.”

One woman, in particular, stands out in Kurzum’s mind. 

The woman, whom Kurzum didn’t name, was homeless for 12 years before she was able to afford a place to live. She then overcame another obstacle: She had to throw away all of her furniture because of bedbugs. Despite this, she was still incredibly grateful just to have a home.

“It gave me a real appreciation for what I have,” Kurzum said. “She appreciated that she doesn’t have to sleep on the street, while I appreciate that I have a phone and MacBook.”

For many student groups, feeding and aiding the homeless is a priority.

Jonae Lloyd is the founder and president of Food Recovery Heroes, the Pitt chapter of the Food Recovery Network, which collects leftover food from on-campus dining facilities and delivers it to those in need, including the homeless. 

Currently, the group collects three times a day from the Oakland Bakery on Fifth Avenue and the kosher section of Market-To-Go, underneath the Litchfield Towers lobby.

Lloyd, a senior psychology major, said the Pitt chapter focuses on not only eliminating food waste, but volunteering with the people they are serving.

“We are still a small group right now, with about 30 members, but we hope to expand over the year so that we can recover food from more locations on campus and donate to more local agencies in need,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd said she believes most people should change the way they think about the homeless. She argued that they are not homeless people, but people who happen to be homeless.  

“By lending a helping hand or just giving them a smile or someone to talk to, even though it might not make their situation better right away, maybe it would change their mood, or even their outlook on the day,” Lloyd said. “They are people first and everyone needs help once in a while, and no one should be above lending a helping hand.”

Ward echoed Lloyd’s thoughts, encouraging anyone to help in any way they can, because everyone should feel “a responsibility to give back and help those who may need help helping themselves.” Money isn’t the only way to help, she said; donating time, resources or calling a homeless shelter or agency for a person are all meaningful ways to help.

“Homelessness has been an issue for many, many years, unfortunately, and may continue to be a problem,” Ward said. “The ultimate goal is to end homelessness, but I feel we all have a responsibility to serve those who are unable to serve themselves.”