The Winter Shelter season that ends the night of March 15-16, 2022 admittedly has been a rough one for Homeless Services Supervisor Doug Murry and Operation Safety Net’s shelter team.
Despite staffing shortages and pandemic protocols, Winter Shelter colleagues served those who really have it tough—Pittsburgh’s “rough sleepers,” as the British call individuals experiencing homelessness.
The shelter colleagues didn’t miss a beat as they provided those seeking refuge from the cold a warm, dry place to sleep; basic health care, and COVID-19 vaccinations and testing; shower and laundry facilities; benefits, service coordination, and care management; and other basic necessities.
“It was definitely a challenging season, especially starting off with only minimal staff,” Murry says, noting that because of COVID-19, only medical professionals could volunteer to help. “It’s been a stressful little four months.”
Some nights presented greater challenges than others, especially one night in December.
It was because of his quick thinking during a critical incident that night, and his overall commitment to Pittsburgh Mercy’s values of Reverence, Stewardship, Integrity, Community, and Courage, that Murry was named as January Colleague of the Month.
After hearing of a 911 situation about an individual in crisis near the Winter Shelter, Murry immediately sprang into action to assist the man, who had overdosed and was unconscious in an alleyway behind the shelter, according to Jacqueline Hunter, Homeless Services senior manager, who nominated him for the award.
“Doug crawled into a small space behind a dumpster and administered Narcan two different times, and revived the individual,” Hunter said.
“He managed the situation that erupted between the individual in crisis, his girlfriend, and EMS workers after they arrived, and ensured everyone at the scene remained composed. He then, humbly and simply, went back to work that evening.”
Administering naxolone (Narcan) is something Murry has had to do at least once a week for persons served during shelter season. Because it is a low-barrier facility, the Winter Shelter accepts anyone who comes to the door, including those who struggle with substance use.
“I don’t even consider it a medical emergency anymore,” Murry says, noting there were only three major medical emergencies this season, including the man in the alley.
Another man had early signs of a heart attack. Danielle Schnauber, nurse practitioner, had to respond with CPR and naloxone to a man with blood sugar levels in the 30s (below 70 is considered low). The staff also had to help some folks struggling with suicidal tendencies, Murry says.
Because the COVID-19 restrictions reduced the shelter capacity to 68 individuals a night, Murry says an average of 15 men had to be sent to the Safe Haven Hotel, originally a pandemic refuge for persons in need of isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 but also used to house overflow from the Winter Shelter.
On the coldest night of the year, about 120 people showed up at the Winter Shelter, and all found beds, thanks to other providers.
Bringing new colleagues aboard was a major challenge Murry faced. Because of a hiring issue industry wide among service providers, Murry ended up covering the overnight shift many nights, while trying to get a consistent full staff schedule and training new hires. It was only in February that Murry finally wasn’t working every overnight.
“I really have to thank the staff that was working at the shelter,” he says. “We got the job done.”
How did he cope with the Winter Shelter season?
“I’m a firm believer in rest,” Murry says. “Make sure you fit in time for yourself.”
Murry is back to daylight hours this week and able to spend more time at Wellspring, another site he supervises. The former drop-in space has shifted to an engagement center for those experiencing homelessness, offering meals, showers, and computers for persons served in a new space on Fifth Avenue.
As a bit of self-care, Murry plans “a little trip out of town every season,” and is looking forward to heading to Florida, his “favorite spot to go.”
When the Winter Shelter doors close tomorrow, it will be a bittersweet moment for Murry, who has been involved with the shelter for the last four years. Hopes are that by this November, the new permanent, year-round shelter will be open Downtown.
“It’s going to allow us to develop new strategies,” he says. “The staff is excited.”
For more information on the Winter Shelter, Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, or ways you can help support this important part of our mission, visit https://www.pittsburghmercy.org/homeless-services/pittsburgh-mercys-operation-safety-net/.