CHS operates four shelter programs throughout Allegheny County—a total of 14 spaces—that provide shelter for individuals and families in critical need. Our shelters strive to help homeless and at-risk individuals have a safe place to recover while accessing individualized service coordination and care management to help in their transition to permanent housing. Transitioning successfully into permanent housing involves making drastic changes to routines and building trust. It’s a difficult undertaking for anyone, but it is especially difficult for a person or family carrying the weight of the trauma caused by homelessness. Complex and long-term health conditions such as mental illness, substance use disorders, physical disabilities, and other medical conditions increase an individual’s chances of returning to homelessness. Avoiding relapse requires programming focused on care management and community, which is the focus of the Home 2020 program.
In March of 2020, CHS took its first client at Home 2020, a partnership with UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital Homeless Continuum Program. The shelter serves anyone who is actively homeless and without minor children. As an emergency shelter, Home 2020 requires clients to maintain general space upkeep, including their bedroom, and to pursue stable housing options either independently or through a program. Clients are expected to work with their CHS Community Support Specialist (CSS) to maintain or obtain any and all benefits they may be eligible for including income, SNAP, and specifically right now, COVID stimulus checks and unemployment. Over the past two months, Home 2020 has served almost 30 unduplicated individuals, with 16 currently living in the shelter.
The shelter has been successful in getting clients quickly moved into permanent housing due to a few key elements of its building and program designs, both of which have helped build community amongst the clients residing there.
First, Home 2020 and those operated by CHS don't require residents to leave during the day, like other shelters in the County do. Leaving could possibly put them in unhealthy situations, as returning to a familiar situation is always easier than building a new routine. This approach gives clients some breathing room as they build their comfort levels around strangers, create new routines, and avoid situations that would be detriments to their recovery.
Second, the house is incredibly accessible with three mobility accessible rooms, a ramp to the front door, and an accessible bathroom. There’s also a fully operating kitchen that clients use to cook their meals in. This has turned out to be a huge contributing factor to the success of Home 2020 clients. Because of the typical inaccessibility other shelters have to a full kitchen and the inability to cook when living on the street, Home 2020 offers residents a unique and welcome opportunity to really feel like they're at home. Luray Fladd, a Program Director at CHS who works closely with our scattered site shelter program, explains: “Many [clients] have commented that they missed cooking or find it very comforting, or it reminds them fondly of family and the meals they remember as kids. Sometimes they'll pick a meal and say they want to make their mom's famous 'whatever.' It's really been a bonding moment for many of our residents."
Third, Home 2020 accepts couples. For homeless couples, finding shelter often means being separated. Shelter programs are often gendered, either by floor or building. Any one of us would have difficulty getting through our biggest challenges without our loved ones by our side. This is especially hard for homeless individuals whose partner is the only person they feel safe with, to whom they confide in, and who they trust. Being separated from that person can inhibit their success staying in a shelter, let alone transition to permanent housing. For the several pairs who have come through Home 2020 already, it's been an emotional beginning. "Most have been moved to tears at being able to stay together," Fladd explains. The shelter is somewhere warm and safe, and it offers couples a chance to see what stability looks like together rather than separately.
The incredible staff that work at Home 2020 must also be given credit for the existing community that has created such strong programming there. Staff not only provide immediate care for residents to help them from one day to the next, but they provide care management so residents can learn how to take ownership over their health, something residents need to do to successfully avoid returning to a homeless situation. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of having strong relationships between staff and clients. When a Home 2020 staff member was exposed to a positive case of COVID-19 and tested negatively, clients had the opportunity to hear more about testing and firsthand experience of how the disease impacts a person’s life. Recently, I interviewed this staff member to learn more about how he used his experience to keep clients safe. Anyone coming from a homeless situation is especially vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19. The pandemic has been one of CHS’s biggest challenges yet, as creating a safe environment for clients depended on supplies and multiple levels of effective communication between clients and staff and between staff and CHS leadership. Mark* explains:
Early on in this pandemic, I had some concerns about our residents and whether or not they may have been exposed or even positive for COVID-19. At that point, I really wasn’t sure how to deal with those concerns so I took them to my supervisor and included our head of HR and they rapidly responded by having a medical outreach team come to the shelter. Once there, the team interviewed residents very thoroughly and paid closer attention to those with symptoms. When considering our residents, that entire situation and response gave me confidence and put me at ease that they were in great hands and that help, for them, was not far away if needed.
As for myself, I found the entire response to my possible exposure very compassionate and detailed. I received encouragement from everybody on my immediate case team and further encouragement from the [CHS] main office. I felt completely confident in being able to report any possible symptoms and having an immediate response available to me with plenty of support and compassion. Feeling that way has made it much easier to do my job through this pandemic and do it effectively.
Working with the shifting information released about COVID-19, as is to be expected with any novel virus, was difficult work. Continuing our programs and services during the pandemic meant updating guidelines and ensuring staff had consistent access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). As an organization with front line staff, CHS held the responsibility of keeping its staff safe. Mark explains:
Very early on, I was invited to join in on a conference call that included many supervisors and directors within CHS about each facility properly obtaining and keeping a healthy stock of PPE gear. I was asked to head the Home 2020 shelter in this regard and immediately took a detailed inventory of everything we had on shelf and everything we needed. Even before that list was generated and passed on, PPE gear was being dropped off for us to make immediate use of and to ensure that our residents had every single piece of equipment or cleaning material that they needed to remain healthy and safe. In addition, a cleaning company was hired to come into the shelter and clean it from top to bottom and they have since returned once to repeat the process. We make sure our residents have 24-hour access to protective masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. We also have an assortment of cleaning supplies available at all times for them to utilize around the house and in their personal space. We’ve posted many informational memos about Covid-19, how it’s spread, and how best to protect against it and shelter staff also keep up with cleaning on all levels to ensure the house is safe.
Client questions focused on symptoms, precautions, and even the test. They were able to ask Mark additional questions regarding all of these things, and in turn, Mark was able to help clients feel more at ease in case they had to take the test themselves:
The most common question they had was about the test itself. Did they stick that Q-Tip all the way up into my brain? Did it hurt? What did it feel like? Of course, they did stick that thing up my nose and, seemingly, into my brain, though, as I told them, it did not hurt. It felt weird but it didn’t hurt. They also asked me about whether or not I went home after learning of the exposure so I told them about my very brief quarantine situation. More than anything, they were very happy to learn that I was negative and that I was back.
In a way, Mark became the go-to for COVID-19 questions. Because of the relationship he had already established with clients prior to the pandemic, clients were comfortable asking him more about how they could better protect themselves and the shelter. And it was this that helped the entire shelter stay safe. Mark explains:
From there, much of our conversation shifted to measures we would take proactively to make sure we all remained safe and healthy. More than anything else, those conversations showed me that the working relationships that I’ve formed since Home 2020 opened are valuable and meaningful to everybody involved and they are tremendously important when trying to be effective at my job.
Residents who come to Home 2020, as with any of our shelter programs, often come with nothing. We want to thank Amazon’s local office for their donations earlier this year with the opening of the Home 2020 program. Their gifts of bed sheets, towels, and cooking sets helped the shelter provide its first clients with a comfortable space that felt like home. And because of these donations, we’ve also been able to give clients supplies once they leave the program. Not only has this helped clients financially, but taking something with them upon graduation is a memento of how far they’ve come from living in a homeless situation to finally living independently.
To make a donation so Home 2020 can continue supplying essential items to clients and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff, please give gift through the CHS donations page.
*The CHS staff member’s name has been changed to protect his identify.