Storm clouds gathered above the shuttered Second Avenue Commons homeless shelter as Ronald McGinnis literally planned his next steps.

On Tuesday, the 59-year-old homeless man, who entered the Downtown shelter six weeks ago, watched people pour out of the building as flames shot off its roof and smoke filled the late-afternoon air.

On Wednesday, McGinnis planned to walk the mile to David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where Pittsburgh Regional Transit buses had shuttled 115 of his neighbors after the fire forced them to seek shelter there.

“This is my first time in a situation like this,” said McGinnis, who lived in Garfield, East Liberty and Homewood before family conflict led him to become homeless this year. “The shelter’s organized; they even have medical downstairs.”

“I have to walk over there,” he said, referring to the convention center. “My legs are kind of tired, being on my feet all day. But I can get around.”

The shelter itself showed few signs of damage from the nearby sidewalk along Municipal Courts Drive.

“Building closed due to fire,” a bright-pink sign taped to the shelter’s front door announced Wednesday. “Proceed to David L. Lawrence Convention Center.”

A handful of people paced near the darkened building, whose utilities had been shut off, officials said. One man slept — under a beige blanket in the fetal position — on the sidewalk near the facility.

The fire, which appears to have started with a rooftop air conditioning or air handling unit, didn’t get into the building, public safety spokeswoman Emily Bourne said.

There is a hole in the structure, though, and some windows are blown out.

Officials were sparingly helping residents get into the building Wednesday to retrieve ID and medications, said Human Services Director Erin Dalton, during an impromptu press conference outside the convention center.

It’s too early to put a timeline on repairing Second Avenue Commons — or bringing back those who need its services, Dalton said.

The convention center will accommodate shelter residents for “the coming days,” though plans for future weeks remain unclear.

At the time the fire broke out on Tuesday, 92 people were being served in Second Avenue Commons’ emergency shelter.

Forty-three were in the shelter’s “single room occupancy” units, and about 40 were staying in the overflow space, which runs each night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., said Linda Ross, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mercy. Not all of the residents moved to the convention center.

Pittsburgh Mercy manages parts of the facility.

Allegheny County officials continued to work with area nonprofits on Wednesday to help those displaced by the fire.

Dalton stressed it “was really amazing how the community came together to respond” to the residents being displaced.

County officials helped set up 200 beds at the convention center and are running the facilities there, said Nicole Roschella, a spokeswoman for American Red Cross Greater Pennsylvania Region.

The Red Cross is providing cots, blankets and additional shelter workers.

“It happened at a good time,” said Brian O’Malley, a security director at the convention center, as he stood outside the temporary shelter. “If this happened during Anthrocon, we’d be booked from top to bottom.”

The convention center remained fairly quiet Wednesday morning.

Two Allegheny County Police SUVs sat parked on 10th Street, near the entrance to the convention center’s West Lobby. At a desk inside, security guards waved metal-detecting wands up and down people’s arms and legs as they entered the shelter, which was set up on the first floor.

Across Pittsburgh at the same time, in a large kitchen off Hazelwood’s Second Avenue, Jen Flanagan watched student-chefs prepare Thursday’s meals for those staying at the temporary shelter.

“I’ll be honest with you — we do this every day,” said Flanagan, CEO and founder of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, as she stood in the midst of the frenzied activity. “We often are tapped for last-minute emergencies.”

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh has served three meals a day, seven days a week at Second Avenue Commons since the Downtown shelter opened in 2022. County officials asked Flanagan if the group could assist with feeding the displaced residents.

“It wasn’t even a question,” Flanagan said. “‘Absolutely.’”

Flanagan’s staff worked overtime Tuesday night so that the 115 residents living in the convention center woke up the next morning to a continental breakfast.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, the group already was packing Thursday’s lunch — rows of turkey-and-cheese sandwiches on white bread, served with an apple and bottled water. Thursday night’s dinner, which cooked nearby, will be stir-fried vegetables.

“One of the things we like to impress upon our students is that food is our love language — we put love on a plate,” said Bruce Harris, the group’s executive chef. “It says, ‘Though you are displaced, you have food, and there’s someone who cares about you.’”

“The ‘double bottom line’ of our community meals is: that people are being trained to work in food services as we’re doing it,” Flanagan added.

Flanagan, who launched her nonprofit 10 years ago, was rattled into the nonprofit world years earlier.

She was living in New York City when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. It changed her. Flanagan signed up for AmeriCorps, the federal agency that provides volunteers with stipends in exchange for community work, and moved to Pittsburgh.

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh previously operated out of the Energy Innovation Center, a former Hill District trade school that focuses on workforce development, Flanagan said. Since moving to Hazelwood in 2018, the group has grown to a staff of 36 people.

Nearly 450 adult culinary students have graduated from its three-month job-training program, she said. Its 100th class starts June 13. Anywhere from 15 to 20 of those students prepare 2,000 meals every day in the Hazelwood kitchen.

Community Kitchen set up its kitchen in Second Avenue Commons two years ago. In little time, Chef Don Burch and his team were cooking an average of 10,000 meals a month, Flanagan said.

Staff members entered the shelter Wednesday morning to assess the damage done, Flanagan said. No equipment was lost to the fire but water from firefighters did extensive damage to the roughly 25-foot by 20-foot kitchen’s ceiling tiles.

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh is a multi-tiered operation. Flanagan said 65% of its $3 million annual budget comes from “enterprises” — catering, a butchery operation, its food truck. The rest comes from donations.

There’s a lot on Flanagan’s plate. Her nonprofit is moving to a larger facility in the Hill District in 2025, and one program she’s developing might lead Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s butchery operation to be USDA-inspected.

“When the county called yesterday and said, ‘Can you handle the food?,’ it was ‘Absolutely,’ ” Flanagan said Wednesday, as students in green T-shirts prepared sandwiches nearby. “We’re very happy to check that box. We’ve got this. Now, do the other things you need to do.”

“Second Avenue Commons is a really important resource,” she added. “It’s not just a place to live. There were lots of services there. This is a real hit for the residents there.”

Reporter Julia Felton contributed to this article.

Justin Vellucci is a TribLive reporter covering crime and public safety in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. A longtime freelance journalist and former reporter for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, he worked as a general assignment reporter at the Trib from 2006 to 2009 and returned in 2022. He can be reached at