How you can help Pittsburghers who are homeless

Hear from people in the city who are homeless and the advocates serving them.

A person holds a sign Downtown.

A person holds a sign Downtown.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
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At 26, Marko Bulet has already spent three-and-a-half years in Pittsburgh without a home.

Originally from Beaver County, Bulet said he was lured to the city by the promise of better resources. He found them — and cracks in the system, as well.

“I was staying in Strawberry Way on the ground with blankets and pillows and comforters,” Bulet told The Incline. “There are good resources here in Pittsburgh, there are, but the homeless are still hurting out here.”

Bulet spoke to The Incline while panhandling at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Seventh Street on Friday afternoon, when the temperature was in the 40s and families flocked to Downtown holiday highlights like the nearby skating rink at PPG Place.

He said that while he and his wife recently moved into a home secured for them by the Bethlehem Haven organization, he continues to rely on the generosity of strangers to make ends meet. “I have no social security or disability payments,” he said. “My wife gets food stamps for me and her.”

Just around the corner, Terry Clawson, a 67-year-old who’s been homeless in his hometown for years, also sought donations from passersby. There are an estimated 1,145 people experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County — down from 1,573 in 2014 — and 14,000 more across Pennsylvania.

Clawson said Pittsburgh remains a relatively charitable place compared to others he’s seen.

At The Red Door program, a Stanwix Street soup kitchen in operation since the Great Depression, Coordinator Heidi Potter said it appears the number of people Downtown without a home is larger than normal this year. She confirmed The Red Door is serving more people than normal, adding, “I would say we’re up by about 25 people a day.”

Some of that may have to do with the resources they offer — clothing in addition to food. More broadly, though, Potter thinks Pittsburgh’s reputation as a city that’s “good to its homeless and disenfranchised” is also a factor.

“I often hear that from the homeless I talk to,” Potter said. “They say they hitchhiked here or traveled here because they heard Pittsburgh is a good place.”

But there is concern among those like Clawson that the prevalence of people who are homeless in Downtown Pittsburgh is straining that spirit of generosity, especially at a time of year traditionally associated with a greater outpouring than is typical.

“If you walk around, you’re going to see someone on every corner, and I think people just get tired of the panhandling,” said a man identified by his sign and displayed Department of Veteran Affairs ID as a former member of the military. He asked that his name not be used in this article.

On Friday, advocates and supporters will gather Downtown for a walk and vigil highlighting the experience of people who are homeless like him on what is the longest night of the year.

But even beyond events like it, experts and people who are homeless say there are many ways to help, those that require money and those that don’t.

Where and how to help

Asking For Change

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership touts its “Asking for change” campaign with the Downtown Pittsburgh Ministerium as a worthy recipient of monetary donations.

The campaign supports the work of local churches providing a variety of services including emergency food, crisis counseling, transportation assistance, referrals to social service agencies and more.

Donations can be made by texting “Give” to 412-274-7146 or by mailing checks, payable to the Downtown Pittsburgh Ministerium, to 615 Grant Street, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15219.

Donations can also be made online here. Volunteering opportunities can be arranged by emailing volunteer coordinator Louise McManus with the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh at [email protected].

Donate to shelters and volunteer

Monetary donations are also welcome at shelters serving people who are homeless.

“The most helpful donation for any of the shelters is almost always money,” explained Mark Bertolet, communications manager with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Bertolet added, “But it’s possible each shelter might have other needs.”

Bertolet suggested contacting shelters directly to find out. A list of county shelters is available here.

Susan Rauscher, executive director with Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, which has a shelter in Crawford-Roberts and another in Butler, said, “Monetary gifts are always helpful” for them.

Rauscher continued: “During winter months we go through a lot of winter outerwear: coats, scarves, gloves, mittens as well as donated packaged food: instant oatmeal packets, instant soup packets, cracker packets, etc.”

Additionally, Rauscher said volunteers are always needed. (Monetary donations to Catholic Charities can be made here. Information about volunteering opportunities can be found here.)

Give all year long

At The Red Door on Stanwix, Potter said volunteerism runs high this time of year. The greater need, she added, comes after the holidays are over.

“At this point we have an abundance of volunteers,” Potter said. “It starts at Thanksgiving, this wave of incredible generosity. But the needs go on, and to continue to be a presence of hope to people in the winter requires resources beyond the beginning of the year.”

Potter said this means donations of warm clothing, something offered to clients of The Red Door in addition to food and something that’s particularly important now with the coldest weather yet to come.

To coordinate a drop-off of winter clothing, interested parties are asked to email Potter at [email protected].

Be kind — and prepared

New York City’s famed Bowery Mission says simply acknowledging people who are homeless can have an impact.

“Say a simple hello,” a tipsheet on the mission’s website reads. “Talk to them and engage in a simple conversation. When you take your time to learn about your homeless neighbor, his or her story and family, you show them that you care!”

Beyond that, the tipsheet suggests carrying gift cards for fast food or grocery store chains to offer people who are homeless something to eat and a warm place to go. It also suggests carrying granola bars to “provide energy and nutrition” to those in need and bottles of water to “prevent dehydration, a common health concern for the homeless community.”

Contact elected officials

Lobbying elected officials and stressing the need to commit adequate resources to address homelessness in Pittsburgh can also be helpful, advocates say. But material needs remain a constant.

Last year, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials touted the success of efforts to house more than 500 veterans who were homeless since 2014, saying they’d managed to “effectively” end veteran homelessness here in the process. Officials have also acknowledged that the work on this front will continue.

What people who are homeless say

“The best way [to help] is to ask them what they need,” said Christi, a 40-year-old from Westmoreland County who asked that her last name not be used.

Christi said she’s been homeless in Pittsburgh off and on for four years and is currently staying at a shelter in McKeesport and taking a bus into Downtown Pittsburgh to panhandle. In the past, Christi said she’s slept in a tent under a South Side bridge. Christi said she became homeless after fleeing “family issues and abuse.”

“If you want to help the homeless, just keep ’em warm,” Christi explained. “Good food, hot food, toilet paper, things like that, it goes a long way. Donate to shelters or outreach groups or assistance groups.”

Christi said “it varies from person to person what they need,” and that outreach and assistance groups are often able to best respond to that variety.

Artisha Walker, 31, has been homeless in Pittsburgh for six years. When Walker’s husband suffered a fatal heart attack, Walker said affording their house payments alone became impossible.

“The best thing people can do for homeless people when they ask for help is to assist them with money,” Walker said. “I know you may not want to give them your money because you think people are drugging or boozing it up, but actually there’s people like me that genuinely use it to buy food or clothing or whatever, or a coat to stay warm. And if you don’t have cash you can use your credit card to buy them something to eat.”

The case has been made both for and against the practice of giving cash directly to people without homes. Others have made a case that falls closer to the middle.

In Downtown, Clawson said that while he panhandles himself, he acknowledges donations to local aid agencies are likely to have the greatest impact.

“There’s a couple of churches here Downtown, like up on Smithfield and that, you can go up there and get a couple of shopping bags full of groceries, canned goods or something like that and that’s every day almost. And right here around the corner, at the Catholic Charities, you can go there and get clothes like a coat and shoes, it’s not brand new stuff but it’s pretty nice.”

Clawson added of the Catholic Charities, “If people would just give them the $5 instead of me — because I can go there any time of day to get a cup of coffee or maybe a bowl of noodle soup. They’ve always got something.”

Bulet agreed, saying, “If you can’t donate to [a person’s] hand, donate to a church or donate in any form: money, toiletries, blankets, canned goods, anything. Every little bit helps.”