Wood Street Commons: Offering Support in Downtown Pittsburgh Beyond Shelter

The downtown area of any large city contains the perfect mix of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s part of what makes any urban landscape exciting, diverse, and at times, downright honest. It’s an environment we are all familiar with: crowded street corners and sidewalks with people dressed in business, business casual, college-student casual, spandex (bravo to anyone running in downtown Pittsburgh—I see you), and of course, those who have somehow become easy for most people to ignore—the homeless.

I’m going to be real honest here: when I see someone asking for help, I don’t always give money. So I’m not here to judge. Sometimes all I have on me is a sympathetic smile, a little wave to say hello, maybe even a few polite words. And from standing on the corner of Smithfield and Third Avenue a few weeks ago while waiting for a light to change, I know that I’m not the only one. While I truly believe that humans are naturally altruistic, when faced with such a large, complex issue like homelessness, it can feel like you’re making zero impact from the individual level. But what I see happening now is desensitization. Homelessness has become so prevalent, so public, that unless it impacts you directly, it’s only a part of the background to your daily commute, during your lunch break, or along the walk from a parking garage to a Pens game.

But these are human beings we are talking about. The issue of homelessness should not be treated as normal, but more as a reflection that current systems are not working for everyone. Our country is built on the promise that if you work hard enough you can pull yourself up from any economic situation, but the truth is that bettering yourself unaided is sometimes an impossible feat. Why is that? It’s simple: low economic class means high vulnerability. Something small can easily become life-altering, and if you have little to fall back on, or have friends and family in no better economic situations to help, it can be really tough to pull yourself out of a dire situation. And with the rising cost of housing against slowly rising wages, the unforeseen costs of unplanned medical emergencies, and the financial and social costs of an untreated mental illness or substance addiction, there seems to be more working against people than for them.

The issue of homelessness in Pittsburgh is getting better, but improvement is painfully slow. In 2013, Allegheny County reported 1,492 homeless individuals. That number has since dropped to 1,146 individuals reported in 2017. It’s important that Pittsburgh has available support systems working together, because collaborative work is going to make the biggest impact in helping to solve homelessness in this city and others across the United States. To give you some reference, shelter is designed to be temporary, around 30-60 days. However, the current trend CHS is seeing is more like 120-160 days. While the number of homeless individuals in Pittsburgh is gradually decreasing, more is being demanded from shelters in order to fully support and rehabilitate individuals so they do not return back to a homeless situation. And that takes resources.

One support system that is courageously impacting recurrent homelessness is Wood Street Commons, located at 301 Third Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.

From the outside, Wood Street Commons (WSC) looks like a typical building you’d find in downtown Pittsburgh. Designed by Edward Weber, the building evokes medieval elements commonly found in his architecture (he also designed Central Catholic High School in Oakland, St. Colman’s School and Convent in Turtle Creek, St. Mark’s school in McKees Rocks, and Synod Hall of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese). Above the third avenue entrance is an inscription noting the Young Men’s Christian Association, as the building was formally the Pittsburgh YMCA. Now the 16 floors are broken up into commercial office space (floors 1-6) and single rooms (floors 7-16). Most importantly, WSC is one of the last remaining Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings in the City of Pittsburgh.

So, let’s talk about how through WSC, CHS is impacting homelessness that goes beyond four walls and a bed. WSC has eight supportive housing programs, each specific in length of stay and level of care. Why do we have more than one program at WSC? Because at CHS, our shelter programs are focused on the needs of the individuals. Individuals are complex, and we have developed supportive housing programs to incorporate the differences we see in people, such as their individual levels of trauma and personal boundaries. It would be relatively uncomplicated to provide basic shelter to individuals, but that level does little to solve the issue of recurrent homelessness, and it does little to treat individuals like human beings. We've seen that appropriate levels of care correlates to how successful individuals are in shelter programs. By providing a variety of programs to meet the needs of the individual, CHS is creating a better support system for its residents. And that makes a huge impact on an individual’s success after leaving any supportive housing program. By offering guidelines that support their needs, individuals can more easily build routines and focus on themselves, and it’s this opportunity for self-care that helps residents make real change for themselves.

Here are a few of those WSC supportive housing programs:

The Shelter program is a revolving 32-bed program offered to men and women that provides transportation assistance for mental health, drug, and/or alcohol addiction counseling. By providing resources to individuals so they can transition from short-term housing programs to a permanent housing solution, WSC has helped 84 shelter residents move into stable housing. The Bridge House program supports 15 individuals with chronic mental illness who have a history of resisting treatment for private reasons of their own, like complications with past experiences. The program provides assistance with daily living skills, care management, service coordination, medication monitoring, and health and wellness services. In response to the high number of people who are homeless and mentally ill (about 25%), the program is designed to prevent recurrent homelessness and enhance the quality of life for people living with mental illness by providing community-based housing options instead of structured treatment facilities. Finally, 20 single-room occupancy rooms are kept available for disabled individuals in the Work Toward Sustainability from Crisis program. Through this, those 20 individuals receive assistance with room and board, care management, supportive counseling, daily life skills training, medication monitoring, and referrals to local resources. The impact of this program has increased resident autonomy, feelings of self-esteem, enhanced income, and lowered emergency services. 75% of individuals in this program gained or maintained income.

While CHS does not own the Wood Street Commons building, and out of the 259 individuals who find shelter there, only 87 individuals are housed through CHS, we do manage the WSC Café where all residents and staff are given free cold meals, $1 hot breakfasts, $2 hot dinners, and free holiday meals. To show how much the café is utilized, from July 2016 to June 2017 the café served over 43,000 meals. The CHS food pantry supplies food to the café, which is donated by local restaurants and the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank.

To support residents while they cope with transitioning from living on the street to shelter, and to encourage individuals to see a future for themselves (knowing that the programs at WSC may be one of the first to provide that kind of encouragement), staff seek out community resources for residents to participate in. For example, on Monday, October 22, I was able to talk with residents and barber Constance Mayer for the October haircut day. A monthly event that started last spring, Mayer travels to WSC from the Barber School of Pittsburgh and gives free haircut to residents each month. A haircut is a simple way to make anyone feel more confident about themselves, especially when scheduling a job interview. For many, Mayer is the only opportunity residents have to get a haircut. We all know how expensive haircuts can be, along with the upkeep, and all of that comes at a cost residents at WSC cannot afford. “When people get haircuts, they are usually going through something,” Mayer told me. “They are looking for some kind of change for themselves.” She made residents laugh and asked questions to encourage conversation. And when she held the mirror up for each resident to check out their new look, I noticed a real change in them. They were happy and grateful. They looked like everyone does after a haircut—confident to face the future. “I look forward to this haircut,” one resident said. “It makes me feel like a new person.”

I’ve also seen a physical therapist give free massages, as living on the streets can be rough on an individual’s joints and bones. It also provides an opportunity to receive human touch, which has been proven to help in combating loneliness. Recently, WSC also partnered with PUMPed to Run to form a running group for the early morning, further encouraging residents to set goals, get healthy, and become more confident. For Halloween, Point Park University students came and decorated the WSC Café, and recently scheduled two days to paint the entire café to freshen it up. Several residents volunteered to help prime and paint. “These groups offer residents the opportunity to experience new things and build relationships in the community. The massages offer the residents a sense of relaxation and makes them feel pampered. The running group offers them the opportunity to focus on their physical health and have a sense of community and friendship,” explains Trish Romano, former Director of Wood Street Commons and current Chief Residential Officer. “We all need personal connections and relationships.” Being homeless doesn’t mean individuals are any less deserving of community, and WSC makes sure community is a common theme when scheduling programs and creating partnerships.

A month ago, WSC received a large donation of sweaters, pants, and shoes from one individual that helped dozens of residents. And just a few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh chapter of New Vision Pioneers donated toiletry kits, warm hats, and thick gloves. Staff are always ecstatic to see donations come in, especially around this time of year. Not only does it help ensure residents are safe and healthy, but the reaction in residents to community kindness is incredible to see. Kindness really can go a long way, and it’s that kindness that helps residents feel included and cared for, which is quite the opposite from what many experienced while living on the streets.

It’s hard, both emotionally and psychologically, to depend so much on support systems, especially when those support systems are dependent on policy changes, economic stability, and the readiness of others to advocate for communities they may not be directly a part of. But WSC perseveres, and the CHS staff there are relentless in treating residents with respect by providing quality resources to encourage them to keep pushing forward. When CHS staff arrive at WSC each day, it’s with the goal to provide residents an environment that supports them. They truly are rock stars, doing work that is often both emotionally and physically draining. If you ever doubt your ability to impact and make change, this small group of staff are easy to feel inspired by. Because at WSC, shelter is not about four walls and a bed; it’s about giving residents a reason to believe they are a part of a community and that they have a future to work towards. And that’s kind of care is worth supporting.


For more information on Wood Street Commons, or to learn more on how to donate to CHS, please visit our donations page or contact info@chscorp.org. You can also purchase a gift through our Amazon wish list here so we can make sure residents in our shelter programs are safe this upcoming winter.


Sarah Nesbella

Development Specialist

November 8, 2018


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