By Bobbi Watt Geer, Ph.D.
Homelessness is on the rise nationally and regionally and is particularly visible in downtown Pittsburgh. We at United Way want to make sure our donors and partners know that, from 2023 to 2026, United Way is investing at least $1 million annually in eviction prevention and housing insecurity.
The people behind the numbers: Housing is the most basic of human needs. Increased visibility of people who are unhoused has led to an influx of news stories focused on public safety. What these stories may miss is that rising homelessness is tied directly to increased housing costs. Far too many of our neighbors are one car repair, one job loss or one illness away from being unable to afford their rent or mortgage.
Emergency shelter beds are also in short supply. As of Dec. 31, 2023, there were 685 people in Allegheny County emergency shelters, according to the county’s interactive
dashboard. Small towns and rural areas are also seeing increasing need. In Westmoreland County, where 331 people sought assistance with homeless in 2022, there were only 184 shelter beds available. In Butler County, where 374 sought help in 2022, and Fayette County, where 139 people sought assistance, the number of people seeking services slightly outpaces available shelter beds, according to Department of Housing data for western Pennsylvania. Only in Armstrong County, where 145 people sought homelessness assistance in 2022, is there adequate emergency shelter.
Not enough to meet basic needs. The number of those who need assistance with basic human needs continues to grow. Calls, texts and chats to our PA 211 Southwest helpline, which serves 13
counties, rose to 523,000 in 2022, more than double the number of contacts pre-pandemic. Rent and utilities assistance are the top concerns we hear from people reaching out to 211. We believe
needs will continue to rise. United Way’s ALICE—which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed—data set, which tracks how much working families must earn to meet basic
needs, indicates that 39% of people in western Pennsylvania do not earn enough to pay for what it takes to survive.
Affordable housing is needed. The lack of affordable housing in our region is at the root of much of this challenge. Housing instability increases when families must choose among
child care, food, shelter, transportation, health care and basic technology. That’s why we fund eviction prevention programs, such as RentHelpPGH, Jubilee Association and Just Mediation. We also invest in partner agencies that keep people housed, such as Union Mission, the Women’s Center and Shelter, The Lighthouse Foundation, Blackburn Center and SistersPGH.
There is still much work to be done. Our hope is that our investments with partner agencies—and partnerships with local government via their human services departments—will
increase understanding of how government, corporations and philanthropy can play roles in meeting the needs of those who are unhoused.