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Outreach program finds the homeless who are hardest to help

| Monday, April 25, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

The first and only time Breanna Jay met Mike, he was grimacing, shaking and holding his head between his hands as his fingers curled tight with tension. He was homeless and appeared from underneath a set of railroad tracks, sick, panicking and pleading for help.

Jay, 26, of Lawrenceville walked him to her car. With the help of a volunteer and another homeless man who knew Mike, Jay drove him across town for help at an outpatient clinic in Point Breeze.

Every Tuesday, Jay walks the neighborhood where she met Mike and meets a lot of people with serious troubles. She's an outreach worker for the government-funded group Community Human Services Corp., and part of her job is to spend every Tuesday night in the North Side searching for the region's homeless.

Mike is an extreme case, but most people she meets have a mental illness or addiction, and some have burns, broken bones, even cancer or another terminal illness.

"There aren't too many positive things to say to the people you see," Jay said. "Sometimes people just need someone who will stay for five minutes and listen."

Allegheny County has 318 people considered chronically homeless, those who actually live on the street, often for years at a time. They often try to keep out of view, tucked into crawl spaces under bridges, alcoves under railroad tracks or camps in the woods, and they're the hardest to help, the region's homelessness experts said.

Allegheny County spends about $131,000 on programs to help these people, said Jon McKain, spokesman for Allegheny County's Department of Human Services. But even with street outreach and emergency shelters, the number of chronic homeless is up from 2006, when there were 77.

The count climbed to 329 in 2009, at least a four-year high, and has been up and down in the two years since, according to the county's homeless population survey, a one-night count done every January.

"The people who are still out on the street, except for the new people who have just shown up on the street, are the hard core," said Mac McMahon, Jay's boss and director of the homeless assistance program at Community Human Services. "They're the people with severe behavioral health problems and require three or four times the effort to convince, 'If you want to get into housing, you have to trust me.' "

The goal of McMahon's program is to check in with people and learn about new ones, get food and emergency shelter to the homeless and, ultimately, connect them with long-term housing.

Jay is a good fit because of her methodical nature, McMahon added. He hired her in April 2009 after she finished graduate school with a master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. While some caseworkers get burned out quickly with such unforgiving clients, Jay hasn't had a second thought, McMahon said, despite a full caseload of 20 people to deal with daily in addition to her Tuesday night walks.

Jay has gotten about 15 people into housing since she started, but some were on a waiting list even before she was hired. Some of the 15 ended up back on the street, finding it too difficult to deal with landlords or neighbors or to leave behind old friends still homeless, Jay and McMahon said.

"Even if you didn't have a mental illness before you were homeless, it's easy to end up with one after," Jay said.

Even when someone is willing to accept help, it can take months to connect them with long-term housing, Jay said. Many don't have any photo identification, let alone steady income. Others cannot pass criminal background checks, often because of petty crimes committed while they were homeless, such as stealing flashlights or food, she added.

The county has a 60- to 80-page book listing all the programs for the homeless -- a list that's expanding, she said. Eligibility is different for each one, and waiting lists are often long.

"It's hard work. And it's depressing," Jay said.

When she watches movies, she picks only romantic comedies. "I see enough in life that's hard on people."

Additional Information:


Allegheny County spends about $23 million annually to combat homelessness.

In 2005, the county joined a nationwide effort to end homelessness within 10 years.

The county Department of Human Services receives its largest chunk of money -- $9 million to $11 million annually -- from competitive grants awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The state Department of Public Welfare adds $3.5 million. The rest of the money comes from behavioral health and drug and alcohol programs tied to homelessness prevention efforts.

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