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Civic Impact

Memorializing the homeless and creating future access to health care: Operation Safety Net

Operation Safety Net helped make certain there wasn't a single death among Pittsburgh's homeless this year caused by illness or cold weather. But that won't make the annual vigil for the homeless -- the seven lost in 2012 through accident or other causes -- any less solemn when it is held on Dec. 21.
 
That's National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day -- the longest night of the year -- and Pittsburgh will be among more than 150 U.S. cities to hold a similar observance. Members of Operation Safety Net, which is part of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, invites attendees to donate new hats, gloves and socks for the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter, which opens when the temperature drops below 25 degrees or there is extreme snow or sleet.
 
The main cause of death among the homeless, says Stephanie Chiappini, program manager for Operation Safety Net, is accidents involving the train tracks, rivers and roads near which they live. Chiappini is just glad her organization has been able to connect homeless people to healthcare, housing and other services throughout the year. "If we could get everyone off the street, that would be ideal," she says. "That's what we're working towards."
 
However, some of those with the most severe mental illness say they cannot handle living anywhere else. Nor are there many shelters for those with active substance abuse problems. Operation Safety Net has succeeded in getting 33 among the latter group off the streets and into their Trail Lane Apartments on the South Side, near the 10th Street Bridge. The apartments have what Chiappini calls "a low-demand philosophy," accepting those still addicted to drugs if they do not use the substances on apartment property or threaten the safety of others there.
 
"We were able to engage people directly from the camps and get them into primary health care," she reports -- in particular, behavioral and other integrated mental and physical health services via Pittsburgh Mercy Family Health Center, where they are served by Dr. Jim Withers, founder of Operation Safety Net. "People on the street are comfortable with him," she explains; Dr. J. Todd Wahrenberger, medical director of the practice, and Physician Assistant Linda Von Bloch are also serving homeless patients there. Such integrated services have become a best practice being adopted across the nation.
 
The vigil will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. at Grant Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard, where, underneath the highway overpass, bronze plaques on a memorial wall commemorate the 125 other homeless people whose lives have been memorialized by the organization since 1991.
 
Do Good:
Looking for additional ways to help the homeless? Aid Three Rivers Youth, which runs a homeless outreach center, by clicking here.
 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Stephanie Chiappini, Operation Safety Net
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