The many faces of homelessness in Allegheny County

Homeless people don’t fall into stereotypes.

The people can look like your kid or your grandma. They can be just like the family who used to live next door.

And homelessness hits even those who are eligible for government benefits, like veterans or people with disabilities. Sometimes even more often than others.

This was the message that the leaders of three area nonprofits who visited the PublicSource newsroom recently wanted to drive home.

“The reality is, homelessness is a complex human issue,” said Fred Massey, Chief Executive Officer of FamilyLinks.

Allegheny County has a robust network of homeless services, yet many remain without stable housing.

About 1,500 people were considered homeless during a January 2013 point-in-time count in Allegheny County. Of those, nearly 400 were children.

The meeting with a trio of service providers for the homeless was our second instance of Newsroom Notables, where PublicSource invites area stakeholders to share what their groups are doing and the challenges they face.

The guests were:

  • Massey of FamilyLinks, an organization that annually helps about 8,500 people through its direct services.
  • Adrienne Walnoha of Community Human Services, which serves 3,000 people a year who are experiencing a housing crisis.
  • Joseph Lagana of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, a group he founded 15 years ago that works with 25 shelters and 43 school districts to promote the education of homeless children.

We talked about their many programs, which run the gamut from providing basic needs to services addressing mental health, addiction and education.

FamilyLinks has 15 locations throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania, where it offers 18 family-centered services. It is the product of a 2001 merger of two former human-services organizations, The Whale’s Tale and Parent and Child Guidance Center.

Community Human Services evolved out of a grassroots effort in the 1970s to revitalize South Oakland by creating a sense of community. Its site remains in the neighborhood, but Walnoha said its services have expanded to the greater Pittsburgh area.

And the group still focuses on relationship building, she said. “You need food, clothing and shelter, and you also need friends.”

Lagana said he was looking for a place to volunteer when he learned that there were children in several homeless shelters. “I didn’t know anything about them and I was an educator,” he said.

He visited the shelters and saw that the children were largely unsupervised and watched TV all day. The shelters “were focused on trying to restore the moms,” he said.

The Homeless Children’s Education Fund was developed in 1999 and has since built several learning centers and resource libraries in residential facilities and other agencies that serve children.

Each of the groups participates in the Allegheny County Homeless Alliance Advisory Board, which looks at the bigger picture of homelessness in the area.

The leaders agreed that more tracking of people affected by homelessness would better inform politicians and the community at large on the personal and financial costs of homelessness and why the issue should be addressed holistically.

Current monitoring “doesn’t get to a comprehensive look on who these folks are or what they’re achieving,” Walnoha said, adding that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asks the same questions of a person with a severe disability as it would of a person without a disability. “HUD just wants to say they’re housing people and that person’s going to get a job.”

The way funding streams are set up pushes providers into trying to identify one problem for each person, but several factors could be driving that person into homelessness, Massey said.

“I think that’s one of the biggest issues we have going forward,” he said.

If you would like to visit the PublicSource newsroom or know of a group that might be interested, please reach out to us.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.