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Organizations foot bill for hotel rooms when shelters lack beds

| Monday, July 18, 2011

Before Tommie Lou Morgan moved back to her hometown of Pittsburgh from Georgia in late May, she lined up an apartment where she and her sister would start a new life. When she arrived, an unreachable landlord and the lack of a signed lease left them without a place to stay.

Morgan, 67, used the last Social Security check she had received to check the pair into a hotel. For a week, she searched for a permanent home. With application fees nicking away at her meager budget, Morgan reached out to shelters. She was told they were full.

Scared and running out of time, she tried local charities and housing agencies. Community Human Services in Oakland paid for a week at the hotel, and North Hills Community Outreach in Hampton paid for two.

"This has really been a lifesaver," said Morgan, sitting in her room this month at InTown Suites in Ross. The room has two beds, a bathroom, a television and dressers, but the only signs of home are a small vase of plastic red and pink flowers on a nightstand and a few pots and pans on the kitchen stove.

At least five Western Pennsylvania agencies — Community Human Services, Westmoreland Community Action, The Salvation Army, North Hills Community Outreach and Catholic Charities — can help people with stipends for hotel stays when shelters are full.

Western Pennsylvania's 33 homeless shelters are filling up more frequently, officials say.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon," said Mac McMahon, director of homeless assistance programs at Community Human Services. "I can't really tell you why it's happening."

Allegheny County's Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services uses the organization to help people when shelters are full. The county upped the agency's annual budget for covering the cost of hotels to $20,000 from $5,000 last year, said McMahon.

"The county was realizing the emergency shelter network on given days was at capacity, especially in the winter and for homeless families," he said.

On average, 10 people a year in Allegheny County need a hotel because they have nowhere else to go, he said.

"They are put up based on the idea that they will go to a shelter as soon as one opens up," McMahon said.

Bill Connolly, director of community support programs for Westmoreland Community Action, said the need for hotel stipends is common in the county, where the three shelters often are full.

"It's not cost-effective," he said. "It's more expensive to be in a hotel for a night than to be in a program."

A hotel generally costs $35 to $65 a night, Connolly said. A shelter's costs, which include food and case management services, typically total about $31, said Caroline Woodward, director of development at Bethlehem Haven women's shelter.

Six months after she lost her job and her home, Shannon Jordan, 27, moved herself and her daughters, now 7 and 9, into a shelter with the help of the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches in Natrona Heights.

The single mother and her children spent two months in a shelter until the behavior of some neighbors became troubling, Jordan said. She voiced concerns and got one night in a hotel.

Knowing she needed more time to find permanent housing, Jordan contacted Community Human Services. The agency paid for two weeks in a hotel, giving her enough time to find an affordable home for rent in Penn Hills.

The family moved in September. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program covers 25 percent of her rent - about $195 a month.

"Without that, we wouldn't have made it two months," Jordan said, sitting in her living room with walls covered with photos of family and friends. "It's the biggest help in the world. It allowed me to get things I needed, like couches."

Jordan, who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2007, is applying for disability payments. She hopes one day to go to community college and become a paralegal or medical assistant.

"I want to be in a house, and I want to work," she said.

Navigating the system is not easy. At the hotel, Morgan combed through pages of information from housing agencies, many covered in black X's marking places that she contacted to no avail.

"You have to have a child, be an alcoholic or addict or have mental challenges (to get help)," she said. "Pretty soon, I'm going to be all of those."

Venezia said the state must verify people such as Morgan as homeless -- checking their income level and housing situation -- before they can get help from a county agency.

"There is a bureaucracy that goes with it. ... We try to do our best, but things take time," Venezia said.

Morgan, who is recovering from a recent car accident that left her with bruises on her wrist and foot, said prayer helps her persevere.

Her perseverance was tested this month when her stipends ran out, forcing her to check out of the hotel. She hadn't heard back about openings at any of the shelters, so she packed her things in storage and ended up at a North Side bus stop.

She was scared.

"I have to feel wherever I am I'm safe," said Morgan.

She tried one more place for help, finding a ride to Shepherd's Heart Ministries men's shelter, Uptown. When she showed up, resident Jim Ferguson, 60, spotted her and offered to help. Under his guidance, she ended up on the doorstep of Bethlehem Haven, a few blocks away.

Three beds were open that evening, and Morgan and her sister got two of them. The pair have lived at the shelter for more than a week and received help toward permanent housing. On Friday, she was scheduled to go look at apartments.

Five years from now, Morgan hopes to be "settled somewhere, loving life."

"And I'll just let this be a bad dream," she said.

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