One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Posted on: May 6, 2024Pittsburgh
  1. Second Avenue Commons, Front Entrance

Hi! My name is Ronit Deshpande, and I serve as an advocate for people experiencing homelessness at the Second Avenue Commons Health Center, a clinic in the Second Avenue Commons homeless shelter in downtown Pittsburgh. The shelter is an interdisciplinary site, where organizations such as Pittsburgh Mercy, Allegheny Links, UPMC, and more coordinate to try and combat the multitude of problems that people experiencing housing instability face. While I mostly work on the medical side, I have had the privilege of being able to work in conjunction with social workers, housing coordinators, and people from all different kinds of fields.  

The field of homeless healthcare often feels like for every one step forward you take, you get sent back two steps. Often times, we are fighting more than just the dangers of rough sleeping. Policy makers and police, at times, seem like they actively work against the rights of the population we work with. Just recently, a homeless encampment near our shelter was cleared out by police, and then rocks were laid down to prevent repopulation of the area. This came a few weeks after another encampment was flooded, forcing all its residents to flee and move to encampments across the city. While there is good that comes from policy work, both on the local (the YWCA recently received a large grant from the city to increase its capacity) and national (a bill was passed in August of 2023 to allow Medicare and Medicaid to be applied to street medicine encounters) levels, it feels like politicians pass bills showing their support for the homeless actions and then turn around and act against their interests. 

In my opinion, this policy stance is representative of the opinion of the majority towards people experiencing homelessness. They want to feel like they are doing something to help (thus the bills passed in support), but do not want to look outside their window and see an encampment, or even to let someone into their store to use their bathroom. In my eyes, this simply arises from a lack of exposure to rough sleepers. They see matted hair, an unkempt beard, or abscesses from drug use and immediately make a judgement of the kind of person in front of them. People fail to understand two major things: first, the overwhelming majority of people experiencing homelessness are just people who have had a string of bad luck. Secondly, while mental illness and drug use are major parts of homelessness, neither of these are beyond repair. Medicine helps, of course, but simply having a conversation with someone that is rough sleeping helps too. We have had a patient at the clinic who started a few months ago thinking that he did not even deserve healthcare. After months of rehabilitation on the physical, mental, and occupational fronts, he seems born anew. While I could go into what specific progress he has made, the best way to describe it is this: he smiles more. If this is the one step forward that we get before the next two steps back, I am happy with the progress we have made. 

Overall, people need to realize that people experiencing homeless are just that: people. Being homeless is not their entire identity. Our shelter is filled with creative artists, savvy minds, and positive people. Once we as a society realize this, we can begin to more effectively treat the issue of homelessness. 

About the Author:


Position Title: Advocate for People Experiencing Homelessness

Where are you from? 

Host Site

700 Second Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
700 Second Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15219