Record-breaking cold snap kicks Allegheny County warming center, shelters ‘into overdrive’
More than a dozen people bustled about the basement of The River – A Community Church in New Kensington on midday Wednesday.
Pots of chicken noodle and vegetable broth soups simmered on a stovetop while flaky, doughy biscuits baked in the oven below.
Some volunteers prepped a refreshment area offering a variety of drinks and snacks — freshly brewed coffee, bottled water, fruit juice, hot chocolate and made-from-scratch cookies as well as store-bought ones. Others set up several tables and chairs and put on display an array of donated items up for grabs — beanies, scarves, gloves, coats and baby blankets.
Shortly before 3 p.m., a pair of men lugged outside a large sign labeled “Warming Center” and planted it in the church’s snow-blanketed lawn with an arrow pointing passersby to the basement entrance.
The group hailed from several churches and neighborhoods but were driven by a common goal: providing a warm respite in the Alle-Kiski Valley during this week’s record-breaking cold snap.
“We just had a groundswell of people willing to step up and volunteer and help make this happen,” said Pastor Dean Ward of The River, a nondenominational church along Freeport Road where about 35 residents came up with the idea this past Sunday.
Limited emergency options in A-K Valley
Wednesday marked the first day of the three-day, pop-up warming center organized by a group of churches in New Kensington and neighboring areas.
The River’s warming center will be open again 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. today and Friday.
Church volunteers also will provide transportation to anyone in need of a place to stay overnight.
“We’ve had a lot of people say that there are more homeless people here in the A-K Valley than we realize, and they hide very well,” said Ward, whose volunteers used social media, fliers and contacts with local social services groups and advocates to get the word out about the makeshift warming center. “So we’re drawing our doors open to help them stay warm for a four-hour period of time and then to help them get located to an overnight shelter should they need such a place.”
Across the region, Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh extended daytime hours this week at several recreation and senior centers and overnight shelters. Few such options are available within the Alle-Kiski Valley.
“We don’t have any type of shelter in the 15068 (ZIP code) that’s an emergency shelter,” except for a few spaces for women and children who are fleeing abusive situations, said volunteer Wendy Brzozowski, who was among those who called for the pop-up warming center.
“We have volunteer social workers and people in the community that know the system and can help people get placed in emergency shelters, and then we have a place for people to sit and just be warm,” Brzozowski said. “Not only is there a need, the community wants to make things happen.”
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., before The River’s temporary space opens, The Salvation Army in New Kensington offers a warming center that includes hot coffee and hot chocolate, snacks and a few children’s games.
It wasn’t busy on Wednesday, with nobody there but volunteers as of about 2 p.m.
“It’s more just us being available should a need arise,” said Lt. Phillip Davies of the Salvation Army’s local service center. “Some people are just trying to hunker down, whether that be at their friends or neighbors. We want to be able to be there if it a utility does get shut off or the cold weather takes a toll.”
“We’re going to be open again (Thursday) , as long as they need it,” said Joel Brown, a Salvation Army volunteer and a volunteer firefighter.
At least a dozen people stopped by the Knead Community Cafe, a pay-what-you-can, nonprofit restaurant that offers free beverages and hot coffee daily during lunchtime in New Kensington, just to warm up on Wednesday, with a few waiting at the door when the first worker arrived to open, several volunteers there said.
“It’s surprising how cold some of these people are,” said cafe volunteer Marge Leslie, 70, of Lower Burrell. “The weather closes a lot of places down, and that’s when we need them to stay open.”
The Allegheny Valley Association of Churches in Harrison is housing two families, both consisting of single mothers with children who have fled domestic abuse situations, said executive director Karen Snair. It has capacity for three families.
Lighthouse Ministries in Arnold did not appear to be open Wednesday.
“People might have mental disabilities or drug and alcohol addiction,” Sean Montemurro, 35, of New Kensington, a former electronics technician in the Navy who does work installing roofing, drywall and flooring and often swings by Knead cafe and Lighthouse Ministries on his lunch breaks. “And then you can’t pay your bills in the winter because the heating bills get jacked up.”
Many who lack stable housing and basic needs are forced to seek resources closer to Pittsburgh or Greensburg.
Homeless flock to Downtown Pittsburgh
By 5 p.m. Wednesday, temperatures recorded by The National Weather Service in Moon Township fell to minus 3 and dropping. The previous record was minus 1 on Jan. 30, 1934.
Pittsburgh Mercy’s emergency shelter at Smithfield United Church of Christ in Downtown Pittsburgh opened its doors at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than usual, with plans to say open an hour longer, through 8 a.m. today , when meteorologists predict more subzero temperatures and biting wind chills across Western Pennsylvania.
More than 140 people have been turning to the Downtown shelter nightly in recent weeks, said Brian Matous, winter shelter supervisor and manager of homeless services at Pittsburgh Mercy. Women and youths have additional housing options in Uptown and at domestic violence shelters.
“When the weather gets extreme, we kick into overdrive,” Matous said.
On Friday and Saturday, the Downtown shelter — which generally doesn’t turn anyone away — will open from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. If it fills to capacity, it will work with groups such as Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship and Veteran’s Home in Uptown to ensure every person in need finds a warm place to sleep.
The county-funded winter shelter is in its fourth year of staying open from late November through early March, compared to only opening on nights below 25 degrees in previous years. Last winter, from Nov. 15, 2017, to March 31, 2018, the shelter housed 904 people, including 723 men and 181 women, for an average of 119 people per night.
A recent night’s tally included 115 men and 30 women — a mix of people who are chronically homeless and just became homeless, “people who have lost jobs, got divorced, are just getting out of jail,” Matous said.
“Definitely with this cold snap, we see more and more people coming into our winter shelter,” said Dr. Jim Withers, a specialist in internal medicine and founder and medical director of Operation Safety Net, which tends to the homeless and people with critical needs. “Fortunately, we also see fewer and fewer people living in tents on the street.”
Withers credited Pittsburgh Mercy’s work cultivating relationships and trust with those who are chronically homeless and living in tents or under bridges as a piece toward ensuring nobody dies from the cold.
Temperatures for Thursday are projected to reach minus 6 degrees with a wind chill much lower as arctic air continues to blow in with other cold fronts.
At least people 16 people have used United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s 2-1-1 helpline seeking emergency cold-weather shelter in the past two days, said Bobbi Watt-Geer, senior vice president. United Way receives more than 75,000 calls a year, more than half of which are requests for basic needs such as utility assistance, food and shelter.
“If somebody contacts 2-1-1 and says, ‘I need a shelter and I can’t get there,’ we work with them,’” Watt-Geer said.
United Way also checks on the elderly and brings them items they may need via its “Open Your Heart for Seniors” program that serves thousands in Western Pennsylvania, including more than 100 in the Alle-Kiski Valley.
The city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County announced several warming centers with extended hours this week, including community recreation centers called Magee, West Penn, Brookline and Phillips open through 8 p. m. Pittsburgh senior centers typically close at 4 p.m., but the ones in Greenfield, Homewood, Sheraden and the South Side are staying open through 9 p.m.
The Light of Life Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh’s North Side, Roots of Faith in Sharpsburg and Shepherd’s Heart in Uptown provide daytime warming options and referral services.
Several more municipalities — including Duquesne, Clairton, North Fayette, Port Vue and Richland — also opened warming centers this week. Others have told individuals in need to call 911 to potentially access municipal buildings and fire halls. Aspinwall, Leetsdale and Verona officials said they are prepared to open warming centers if residents have heating issues, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.