District 1 Councilman Bobby Wilson discusses the City of Pittsburgh’s new homelessness relief effort.

Photo: City Council Chambers by Ashlee Green

Councilman Wilson announces the City’s new partnership with Allegheny Health Network, an effort to bring relief to people experiencing homelessness in Pittsburgh’s Northside.

In 2020, as a community, we had some serious conversations about the social inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has cast in stark relief as well as the need for alternatives to policing. I’m looking forward to seeing these conversations turn into action in 2021. Today I’d like to talk about one of the ways the City is turning words into action. The Mayor’s Office and Allegheny Health Network (AHN) received a $1.2 million grant to build three homeless outreach teams in Police Zones 1, 2, and 5. These teams will work to help individuals experiencing homelessness navigate the health care and human services landscape, as well as reduce potentially harmful interactions with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. 

The main components of the program are:

  • Dedicated street outreach teams 
  • Neighborhood-based outreach offices
  • Helping people better connect with health care 
  • Helping people navigate the criminal justice system  
  • Co-responding with public safety

I know that our Northside neighborhoods, especially around Allegheny Commons, have been frustrated for many years at seeing people who are visibly struggling. Sometimes it feels like there is no end in sight and no services available to solve the complex issues that leave people stranded outside. While I certainly do not want to promise that this new initiative will totally solve poverty and homelessness, I am optimistic that this AHN partnership will finally bring long-overdue relief to some of our most vulnerable residents here on the Northside.

The path to recovery from homelessness can be complex and challenging. This new Northside outreach team seeks to be a consistent presence alongside people experiencing homelessness as they navigate multiple social service systems. This team also intends to become a consistent and reliable resource for neighbors who have concerns about homelessness on the Northside and how it affects them. The new Northside team lead, Heidi Allison, is a Northside resident who has been involved with the Northside Homeless Alliance for several years, where she has worked toward solutions that improve the lives of all of our Northside neighbors.

A central feature of the new outreach team’s work is to continue building trusting relationships with public safety to prevent repeated interactions with law enforcement, realize the potential of those interactions to lead to connections with services, and divert individuals experiencing homelessness from jail. This team will partner with police and EMS to provide meaningful linkages to housing and physical and behavioral health providers through a model where both law enforcement and social services respond to calls for help. This year, more than ever, we have come to recognize the complexity of the work of our partners in public safety, and we welcome the creation of the City’s new Office of Community Health and Safety as it pushes to provide much needed support to police, EMS, and fire. This model provides service connections to individuals during or after interactions with responders from all these agencies. It also brings expertise at the moment of contact with public safety services and provides opportunities for faster access to safe housing, benefits, and related social services.

Under this program, dedicated staff will work and walk with participants to navigate health systems to ensure access to long-term housing. Wherever someone may be in their recovery from homelessness, helping them maintain their sense of well-being is critical. Homelessness and housing instability are critically important social determinants of health. To prioritize health and well-being for people experiencing homelessness, the new team is continuing to build and strengthen relationships with existing services and supports to rapidly connect people to them. This project is housed within AHN’s Center for Inclusion Health (CIH), whose mission is to provide outstanding health care to all people in the region served by AHN, especially socially marginalized and vulnerable populations. We anticipate that the strengths of this health-focused outreach model will complement the strengths of existing housing-focused outreach models.

This new program is especially critical during the pandemic because homeless populations are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. Group living, higher rates of chronic health problems, limited ability to shelter-in-place and isolate, and the disproportionate impact of service spaces closing their doors now all contribute to this elevated risk. Access to neighborhood-based street outreach alongside physical, behavioral, and social health-focused interventions will improve opportunities for effective infection control and for mitigating predictable consequences, including the exacerbation of underlying mental health and substance use disorders, opioid overdose risks, and chronic medical conditions. This group has been driving novel solutions to COVID-19 testing among the homeless population. I am so pleased that they will be a part of ensuring equitable vaccine access for those experiencing homelessness in the coming months.

To maximize access to needed resources, the new AHN outreach team is collaborating and coordinating with partners in this work. When we all come together, we can accomplish so much more than as individual groups. Neighborhood-based service hubs and shared spaces will enable AHN and partner agencies to work side-by-side in integrated delivery models. Outreach relationships can then be effectively translated to strong referrals and team-based care.

I look forward to bringing the community together to meet outreach members in the new year. In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like to learn more, please contact Heidi Allison, the new outreach lead at Heidi.Allison@ahn.org or (412) 396-9447. If you have any other questions or concerns, call us at (412) 255-2135, email us at district1@pittsburghpa.gov, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We look forward to hearing from you.

BOBBY WILSON 

COUNCILMAN, DISTRICT 1

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