On Dec. 21, approximately 50 people braved the snow and 17-degree temperature to attend Operation Safety Net’s candle light memorial service. The annual event is dedicated to the memory of homeless individuals who have lost their lives.
“The purpose of the vigil is to remember, to acknowledge, to honor the homeless people that died living on the streets the previous year,” said Jim Withers, founder and medical director of Operation Safety Net. “It was pretty awesome the turn out we had.”
In 2012, seven individuals living on the streets were reported dead. The local event coincides with National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, which is designed to call attention to the plight of people who live on the streets.
“The weather always reinforces the message each year; it gives a sense of the conditions people are in every night,” Withers said. “We’ve had a lot of success getting people into housing, but there’s still those who fall through the cracks. There’s still people who are out there and there’s still people who are dying.”
Operation Safety Net, which is part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, is a medical and social service outreach program for the unsheltered homeless population in Allegheny County. Since its founding in 1992, the organization has reached approximately 10,000 homeless individuals.
“As long as there are people living on our streets, Operation Safety Net will deliver services that fit their reality. I’ve been at this for 20 years,” Withers said. “I think we’ve seen miraculous strides in getting people into primary care, social services, and housing.”
As of the most recent data released in January 2012, there were a total of 56 unsheltered homeless individuals in Allegheny County. Combined with those living in emergency shelter, transitional housing, and safe havens, there were a total of 1376 homeless individuals, including children, living in Allegheny County in 2012.
“The number of people, even though it’s well below freezing, typically we’ve found there are 150 people who are sleeping outside. That’s why we run a severe weather shelter,” Withers said. “We can say that everyone could have a place, but there are a lot of people who are confused or frightened or reluctant for whatever reason so we have to keep our street work going. There are not enough beds for people who are homeless and sick.”
As part of their street work, Operation Safety Net has conducted more than 68,000 visits to homeless individuals living along riverbanks, in alleyways, or beneath bridges and highway overpasses. Through their efforts more than 850 people have found homes, but there are still barriers preventing homeless individuals from obtaining housing.
“There are a number of people out there who have difficult legal situations, legal issues that could get addressed to open housing for a lot of people,” Withers said. “Once they get into housing, they really improve. They really improve every issue in mental health and psychical health, so any barriers that prevent that are not in anyone’s interest.”
The memorial took place beneath a busy highway overpass at Grant Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard in Downtown where there is a memorial wall of bronze plaques commemorating more than 125 people who are known to have died while homeless since 1991. Cashmere Gore, a government affairs associate from the Office of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, attended the memorial service and presented a proclamation to Operation Safety Net.
For more information or to donate to Operation Safety Net, visit www.pmhs.org.