By Joyce Gannon

As Covid case counts exploded in mid-December, social service agencies that assist the homeless faced a looming crisis. Some local shelters were quickly running out of space for those who needed a place to sleep. 

That’s when Brian Matous put out a call for help. 

Director of youth and families for the nonprofit Community Human Services (CHS), Matous rallied his contacts from years of working with the region’s homeless population — and in less than three weeks, helped establish the CHS Emergency Winter Shelter at Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. 

The shelter, which opened on Jan. 3, has 24 beds for women and space to handle overflow when needed. 

CHS Emergency Winter Shelter at Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship in Uptown. Photo by T.J. Murphy.

“It’s what I consider to be a holiday miracle,” says Magdeline Jensen, interim chief executive of CHS, which is based in the Strip District and provides housing, food and other resources to individuals and families.

Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, which funds the shelter, contacted CHS last month for assistance as a Covid surge gripped the region.

“We found ourselves in a predicament,” says Matous. “We have more homeless than space to serve them and Covid didn’t help matters.”

CHS officials say that a number of factors are contributing to a spike in homelessness, including pandemic-generated financial challenges, evictions, home foreclosures and domestic violence cases.  

Other local shelters currently open include  Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side, and Bethlehem Haven in Uptown and at Downtown’s Smithfield United Church of Christ, both of which are operated by Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net.

CHS partners with Allegheny County to operate Safe Haven Hotel, which opened in April 2020 as a convalescent site for individuals who need a place to isolate or quarantine during the pandemic. 

Safe Haven — which operates in an undisclosed location in order to protect its residents who include victims of domestic violence — has 100 beds and has been able to accommodate some of the recent demand to shelter homeless women. 

Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship. Photo by T.J. Murphy.

But with Covid cases rising, CHS realized it needed more space and reached out to the Rev. Mike Wurschmidt, founder and rector at Shepherd’s Heart, which has experience sheltering the homeless, including veterans. 

“I said absolutely, in a heartbeat,” says Wurschmidt. 

Shepherd’s Heart currently operates a drop-in center that offers breakfast, showers, laundry facilities, clothing and blankets. People who stay at its emergency shelter have access to those resources. 

Occupants who test positive for Covid while at Shepherd’s Heart can be transported to Safe Haven for isolation while they recover, says Jensen. 

CHS scrambled to find workers to staff the emergency shelter at Shepherd’s Heart and recruited a dozen, most of whom are juggling other jobs. 

“They are doing this … because of the mission in their hearts,” says Matous.

Scheduled to operate through March 15, the emergency shelter is located at 13 Pride St. in Uptown. 

“We want people to know where to go,” adds Jensen. 

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.