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Sleep-In For The Homeless event to be held this weekend

Published: Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09

Dozens of people gathered in Lawrence Hall lobby in Point Park University, dancing and singing, one day before the celebration of the school's 50th anniversary, but they were not there to celebrate the university's birthday. They are the university's neighbors, residents of the Wood Street Commons, cheering for the building's successful running by its new ownership.

A year ago, the affordable housing project just across the street from Point Park, was on the verge of being closed down until it was acquired by Action-Housing, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing housing solutions for the homeless. Point Park, the then-rumored buyer of the building, offered its space and donated food and drink so the residents at the Wood Street Commons can come and celebrate, said Diane McMahon, development director of Community Human Services (CHS), a nonprofit that provides services at the Commons.

"Cities around the country are trying to create plans and have strategies where individuals and organizations like Point Park join together and become a part of unified effort to try to help the homeless people," said McMahon.

Affordable housing such as the Wood Street Commons is one of the solutions to homelessness. Another one is to raise awareness. CHS organized the annual "Sleep-In for the Homeless" event just for that purpose, according to McMahon.

"The Sleep-In is designed to raise awareness about homelessness, so people know that anybody could become homeless, how you become homeless and what you can do to help end homelessness," McMahon said.

Also present at the celebration was J.W. Tabacchi, director of student activities at Point Park. He is on the planning committee for the Sleep-In. His job is not only to help plan the event, but to get Point Park students to participate.

"Because the university is pushing to be a dynamic urban institution and to really show case that downtown Pittsburgh is really our community," Tabacchi said. "I think students have a great opportunity to go out there, to get involved, to make a difference and to help these people who are experiencing homelessness. The committee members help CHS come up with ideas to build upon every year and make it better. The event is not stagnant. It's always evolving and growing."

This year's event has a different agenda from that of the previous two years. There will be more interaction and more engagement among the participants. One of the evaluation statements from last year was that people were coming from different universities. They were all hanging out together in their own group and not crossing over, according to McMahon.

This year, however, from 7: 30 p.m. to 10: 30 p.m. on Oct. 8, the groups will be broken up. Instead of just walking through Downtown Pittsburgh, the participants will visit the Severe Weather Shelter at the Smithfield United Church. In addition to the rounds or tours, in downtown Pittsburgh, groups of participants will be engaged in new activities such as a camp-building simulation.

"CHS is going to invite more homeless people this year to talk about their experiences," McMahon said.

            "The rounds in Downtown last year were a great idea, but one of the downfalls was that so many people wanted to go. It almost became a show-and-tell," said Raquel Davila, project manager of the Public Allies and a member of the planning committee. Instead of three or four people walking around so they could sit down and talk to homeless people, 10 people were walking together."

            Davilla has been to the last two year's Sleep-In events.

"If you're homeless, you can feel like you're put on [the] spot. Although they want to help you, it can be uncomfortable for both parties," said Davila. "So this year we're trying to limit that awkwardness but still bring more learning opportunities."

She wants to see more Point Park students showing up at this year's event, since not only can students can focus on arts, dance and theater, but they can also engage in discourse with community through the talents they have, said the Point Park alumni who graduated in 2009 with a master's degree in mass communication.

Davila said she thinks homelessness is more hidden in Pittsburgh than in New York City, for example, unlike New York City where homeless people are more visible, when people walk through Downtown Pittsburgh during the day, they are more likely to run into business people or students from Point Park. Homeless people normally do not hang around Downtown until most traffic has left.

"I think that's kind of sad, because it's almost like out of sight out of mind," said Davila, who grew up in Brooklyn.

The number of individuals who received all sorts of services from street outreach to permanent housing totaled 2,468 from December 2000 to January 2010, according to a point-in-time survey conducted by Allegheny County's Department of Human Services.

But McMahon pointed out that the actual number of homeless people is more than that. Some people live in cars and some just do not go for help.

"CHS has housing and we have homeless street outreach," McMahon said. "But we can't do everything."

That is why the CHS decided to hold the event in front of the city county building to raise more political awareness and also to invite politicians to be involved, so that they would be more involved in legislation. Thus the homeless would get state budgets, said McMahon.

 The longtime activist for homelessness was at one time herself homeless. Her parents got divorced when she was seven. Her mother had no money. They were homeless for about a month or two until they came back to Pittsburgh and moved into her grandfather's house.

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