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Westmoreland County opens its 1st cold-weather shelters

Jacob Tierney
| Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
An emergency bed intended for single men at the The Union Mission in Latrobe on Jan. 12, 2016. In addition to two bunk rooms, cots will be added in a separate area for women and children to create an emergency cold weather shelter. The shelter allows people to stay for a night or two if the weather is cold and they have no heat.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
An emergency bed intended for single men at the The Union Mission in Latrobe on Jan. 12, 2016. In addition to two bunk rooms, cots will be added in a separate area for women and children to create an emergency cold weather shelter. The shelter allows people to stay for a night or two if the weather is cold and they have no heat.

Residents without a warm bed on a frigid night can get short-term help at one of Westmoreland County's first emergency cold-weather shelters.

United Way of Westmoreland County worked with the Welcome Home Shelter in Greensburg and the Union Mission in Latrobe, along with several other community organizations, to create the program to help those in need.

“We were getting calls about what if someone's home doesn't have heat, or what if someone doesn't have shelter and it's cold outside,” said Bobbi Watt Geer, regional vice president of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

On cold nights, the homeless, or people without heat in their homes, will sometimes show up at emergency rooms just to have someplace warm to stay, Watt Geer said. Despite the need, homeless shelters have been spread too thin to offer a solution.

The United Way and other organizations provided money and supplies to the shelters to make the program happen, but the small number of rooms available at the shelters is still a limiting factor. Officials estimated they could offer emergency stays for 10 or 12 between the two shelters.

While homeless shelters often give their tenants a place to stay for days or weeks at a time, the cold-weather program is meant to “bridge the gap” for a night or two in an emergency, Watt Geer said.

That could mean helping someone whose furnace breaks or a family that cannot afford fuel for heating their home, said Colen Brown, team leader at Welcome Home.

“They have shelter, and they have a community that is truly concerned about their health and safety,” she said. “We don't turn people away.”

Union Mission will use its living area, counseling rooms and crew quarters to house those in need.

“When the need for a cold-weather shelter became apparent, we of course were at the table,” said Dan Carney, executive director of Union Mission.

Staff members at Welcome Home are preparing backpacks filled with warm clothes and hygiene items for those seeking short-term housing. Food will be provided to those staying at the shelters. If people don't have a way to get to the shelters, the staff will pick them up.

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have no plans to open warming centers this week, officials said. Unlike shelters, warming centers are buildings opened so the public can get out of the extreme cold for short periods.

Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs, however, said residents aren't inclined to use warming centers during cold weather. She said the county usually opens them during events such as long-lasting power outages that require residents to leave home.

Pittsburgh opens its centers when below-zero temperatures are expected for multiple days, spokesman Tim McNulty said. He said temperatures are expected to rise Wednesday.

Nobody knows how many people will use the Westmoreland County program, Watt Geer said. A similar system in Butler County served 15 clients last winter.

This year will allow the staff to see what demand is like, and plan for the future, she said. If demand exceeds supply, United Way will start looking for other sites and more money to expand the scope of the program.

United Way raised more than $9,000 to fund the inaugural project.

Westmoreland Community Action, Feeding the Spirit, Excela Health and the Greensburg YMCA donated money, supplies and manpower to the program. Shelter officials said more help is always welcome.

“We're always looking for volunteers. People that can lend a hand,” Brown said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com. Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed.

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