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Cold-weather sites to again 'fill real void' in Westmoreland County

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, 10:03 p.m.

Among the first people to use Westmoreland County's cold-weather shelters when they opened last winter was a pregnant woman and her two young daughters.

They were stranded in Greensburg after heavy snow halted rail service, preventing them from getting home to Florida aboard Amtrak. Police delivered the family to the city shelter, where they stayed for two days.

“That was a beautiful thing,” said Colen Brown, a team leader with Welcome Home Shelter.

In January, the county worked with providers Welcome Home in Greensburg and Union Mission in Latrobe to open its first cold-weather shelters.

This year, the shelters are opening more than two months earlier, on Nov. 1. They will remain in service through March 31 on nights when temperatures are 25 degrees or below.

“The shelters fill a real void in our community's basic-needs network,” said Bobbi Watt Geer, regional vice president of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “They provide shelter, warmth and support to people struggling to keep their homes heated or to those struggling with shelter during the harshest months of the year.”

More than two dozen people, 2 to 63, stayed in the shelters for a total of 89 nights last winter.

Geer said she was surprised a few years ago when she began getting calls from the Westmoreland County Crisis Line seeking help for people with no shelter in freezing temperatures.

“At the same time, Excela (Health) called during a very cold winter and said people were coming to the emergency room because they had no place to go. That was kind of stunning to me,” she said.

Westmoreland Community Action, Feeding the Spirit, Excela Health, the Area Agency on Aging and the Greensburg YMCA donated money, supplies and manpower for the cold-weather shelter program.

“This particular need really did resonate in the community,” Geer said.

United Way raised more than $9,000 to fund the inaugural project. Geer expects at least twice that much will be needed for 2016-17.

Last year, more temporary lodgers were homeless, rather than lacking heat, Brown said, noting the Greensburg shelter can be a resource for recently released female inmates with no place to turn.

“Some people just wanted food or a clean pair of socks,” she said. “We had no negative experiences.”

Brown expects the shelter this winter will be able to accommodate eight people in addition to its other residents.

Dan Carney, Union Mission executive director, said the Latrobe temporary-housing site can accommodate five, with space for up to two families if the Greensburg shelter reaches overflow status.

Most of the men who turned up last winter were homeless, he said.

“A lot didn't want services or programs,” Carney said.

They might have requested a blanket or gloves and been on their way, he said.

“A lot lived in tents, and wanted to stay out on their own as long as they could,” Carney said. “The goal is really, for us, bridging the gap.”

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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