Director's leadership has helped Latrobe homeless shelter expand its mission
While a sophomore at Saint Vincent College in 2004, Dan Carney worked as a cook and waiter at a Latrobe restaurant, often serving a handful of homeless men from the nearby Union Mission shelter who came in to use free meal vouchers.
“Never any problems. And they all seemed pretty nice,” Carney, 34, recalled.
Soon after, Carney heard that a weekend kitchen/counselor position was available at the shelter. He jumped at the opportunity to earn a little more cash toward his college tuition and left his restaurant job.
Thirteen years later, Carney is on call 24/7 as executive director of Westmoreland County's only homeless shelter for adult men.
He quickly rose thorough the ranks at the Harrison Avenue facility.
“The previous director left after about a month, and they handed me the keys to the place. And I'm still here,” Carney chuckled. “Honestly, I love the work or I wouldn't be here. ... It's challenging, but it's really rewarding.”
Saint Vincent College President Brother Norman W. Hipps has observed Carney's work over the years.
“It's been very impressive what he's done, and that shelter is very important for our entire community. Sometimes you want to believe those places are not necessary, but they are really vital to the community,” Hipps said.
When Carney, a 2001 Derry Area High School graduate, started at the shelter, he worked 18 hours a day, five to seven days a week. There were only three employees. Today it is staffed by three full-time and nine part-time workers.
In existence for 30 years, the shelter had space for 10 in 2004. Today, it has space for 14 men and has expanded program opportunities to a facility on South Maple Avenue in Greensburg and Ligonier Street in Latrobe.
“Our goal has always been helping the men transition through this difficult period of time while maintaining the dignity and respect they deserve,” he said.
Under Carney's leadership the shelter has transitioned from a “three hot(s) and a cot”-type program into a more defined faith-based and goal-oriented program enabling residents to become contributing members of society.
“I'm proud of that transition,” he said.
For immediate intervention, the shelter maintains four emergency beds for stays of up to five days. To get into the “program beds,” there is about a 23-day wait, Carney said.
“The program beds offer up to four months of supportive, goal-driven housing. Each participant has to attain benchmark goals weekly,” Carney said.
The structured program includes supportive services such as counseling, case management, life-skills training, spiritual development and education, he said.
Carney said the program has “broken a lot of the barriers normally associated with traditional shelters” and in the process reduced its rate of participants returning for help.
The Union Mission has a recidivism rate (return to homelessness) of 7.8 percent, compared to the national average of 44 percent, he said.
“We're very proud of that, and we couldn't do it without the dedicated and hardworking staff we have here,” he said.
During his career, Carney has seen more than 3,000 people ranging in age from 17 to 91 pass through the shelter.
Some residents, like Steve, who declined to give his last name, don't know where they would turn without the local help. He is 57 and an Air Force veteran from the Latrobe-Ligonier area.
He said he had nowhere go recently after his utilities where shut off and he was in the process of being released from Excela Health Westmoreland hospital in Greensburg.
“I've only lived in two residences the last 23 years ... but you don't realize how quickly it can turn around on you until it happens. I didn't even have a car when I was being released from the hospital,” Steve said.
“Dan has been great, as well as the whole staff here. They even picked me up at the hospital,” he said.
Once Carney took the job at the shelter, which is funded primarily through gifts from the United Way, McFeely-Rogers Foundation and Community Foundation of Westmoreland County and other communitywide donations, it also took a toll on completing his college degree at Saint Vincent.
“The responsibilities here ... I had to put school on hold. But I eventually graduated from Saint Vincent in 2015 with a major in psychology and minors in education and biology,” he said.
“But it's been worth it,” Carney said. “Where else can you really be part of such positive transformations in people's lives?”