Original article by Steve Bohnel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published on June 10, 2024

Criticism of a new housing initiative introduced by Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato last week has prompted the county’s chief elected official to offer more specifics about its implementation — suggesting that homeless people will not be lodged in senior living facilities and that senior citizens will not be displaced or denied access to public housing.

Ms. Innamorato’s “500 in 500” program aims to create 500 affordable housing units in the next 500 days to serve the local homeless population and others in need, saying the county is looking at existing buildings from nursing homes to hotels to former convents.

But shortly after she announced the plan, the county’s GOP committee chairman and at-large Councilman Sam DeMarco shared concerns on social media site X that the program would put homeless people, who sometimes suffer from mental health issues and drug addiction, in close proximity to senior citizens.

Ms. Innamorato quickly rejected the accusation, telling Post-Gazette news partner KDKA: “People will not be housed in senior centers. What we are talking about is purchasing abandoned motels, hotels, senior centers, rectories and turning them into deeply affordable housing units.”

Mr. DeMarco told the Post-Gazette that he has gotten calls from constituents in recent months, including one in May, that seniors looking to apply to public housing units in the county were being told by building managers that vacant units were being held by the county.

It turns out those callers were not necessarily mistaken.

Richard Stephenson, the chief financial officer for the Allegheny County Housing Authority which is one of the organizations that provides public housing for senior citizens, said fewer than 30 of its units are leased to the “500 in 500” program — some of them in senior living facilities.

According to Mr. Stephenson, “Only senior homeless can move into a senior only building.” He said 13 homeless seniors have moved into four or five different senior buildings, and seven other homeless seniors should be moving into other senior units over the next few weeks.

Mr. Stephenson noted that five homeless families have moved into family sites owned or run by the Housing Authority, and two additional homeless families should be moving into units over the next few weeks.

The authority operates or owns just over 3,800 units in 76 properties.

The senior-only facilities have age restrictions on who can live in the building — something that should help prevent the public safety issue described by Mr. DeMarco, Mr. Stephenson said.

Mr. DeMarco said one of the main issues he had with the program was a lack of communication from Ms. Innamorato’s office on the details before it was announced last week. Former county Executive Rich Fitzgerald would call council members to give them a heads up on details about a new initiative, he said.

Ms. Innamorato, who took office in January, told KDKA that her office communicates with council members each week, sometimes multiple times per week, depending on the issue. But Mr. DeMarco said that the two of them might disagree on how to approach the issue, and that it’s difficult to gauge what her administration is trying to accomplish without looking at the data they are using to make decisions on the program.

One concern he said he has is the proximity to wraparound services that those who are homeless would have in the units provided through the program.

In the KDKA interview, Ms. Innamorato cited the “bridge housing” program run by the county’s Department of Human Services, which helps provide services to the homeless alongside their housing.

In response to Mr. DeMarco’s concerns about wraparound services, Mr. Stephenson said those are provided in community rooms or other places throughout the authority’s facilities. The authority has also instituted other programs and policies in the past that help the working class and those who just became homeless find a unit within the housing system, he said.

Mr. Stephenson said he understands that there still might be a stigma surrounding some aspects of public housing, but that the authority views its role as a hand up, not a handout, for seniors and homeless people, and anyone else trying to become self-sufficient.

“Let’s start judging ourselves on how many people we can get off of public housing. Let’s start judging how many people we can get to be self-sufficient,” Mr. Stephenson said.

It can be a tricky “balancing act” trying to serve those with an urgent need for housing, and others who might have better living conditions but are on a waiting list to get into housing, said Carlos Carter, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that aims to help African Americans reach self-sufficiency through connecting them to educational and housing opportunities, along with other services.

Ms. Innamorato’s proposal is trying to get more affordable units into the system, which is vital, he said.

Despite the initial spat between the council member and the county executive, Mr. DeMarco said he hoped that he and Ms. Innamorato’s administration could work together to address homelessness in the region. There’s a greater need to address the issue now than before, he said. According to the county’s Point in Time count, 1,026 people were in emergency shelters or in unsheltered homelessness on Jan. 30. That’s up from 913 in 2023, according to the county.

He’s cautiously optimistic, he said, about what the future of the “500 in 500” program holds, but stands by his initial comments on social media.

“I’m optimistic that this debate between her and I served its purpose of alerting the public as to what could potentially occur,” he said.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to add the number of homeless seniors moving into senior facilities.

First Published: June 10, 2024, 3:54 p.m.
Updated: June 11, 2024, 11:14 a.m.