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Back in 1991, I’m sure Dr. Jim Withers had no idea that Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net (OSN) would expand to what it is now. OSN focuses on the most underserved population, people experiencing homelessness. While Dr. Withers, founder and medical director, focused on our award-winning, innovative street medicine program, OSN expanded to offer an array of services that include rapid rehousing and multiple permanent supportive housing programs.
From these programs came Trial Lane Apartments, a 16-bed safe haven that took individuals who were homeless directly from the streets and offered them a one-bedroom unit with a private bathroom and kitchenette, while upholding the standards of Housing First, a national best practice using the philosophy that if you take care of a person’s basic needs, such as shelter, they may be more open to other types of services. Each Trail Lane resident was also offered three meals daily, laundry access, supports from an on-site case manager and additional assistance from program assistants.
Over the next few years, the program shifted from being a safe haven to a permanent supported housing program that still followed the Housing First philosophy. This guaranteed housing for the chronic homeless population for life.
The program has yet again transitioned into Scattered Site Housing, meaning that each Trail Lane resident has relocated to an apartment scattered throughout the communities we serve. This was accomplished despite the COVID-19 restrictions and using safe practices, including social distancing and masks.
There has been some tremendous success in locating adequate housing for each resident, so that they feel at home and feel secure. A number of different areas were explored and most Trail Lane residents were excited to venture out from the safe haven apartments on the South Side into a new community.
Some feel as though they have been offered a fresh start. There were some who were reluctant as Trail Lane Apartments has been their home for many years, but in the end they were at peace to learn that they would still receive the support of case management and program assistance.
One individual has totally embraced his new beginning and has integrated himself into the community. He is an avid reader and his new apartment has a library practically in his backyard. Unfortunately, the library is closed due to COVID-19, but there is beauty in knowing that he can walk out his back door and find his escape through reading. He has expressed his gratitude by continuing to set new goals toward maintaining his housing and peace of mind.
Overall the process was beautiful to see and being a part of it was heartening to the OSN colleagues. A lot of this could not have been done without the support from the community. Many were eager to assist this population in their transitions to new beginnings. To know that someone trusts you enough to allow you to assist them in rebuilding their lives is both humbling and naturally rewarding.
Sharon Sumansky is Homeless Services senior manager.