Staff from FOCUS Pittsburgh (Food, Opportunity, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter), a social service nonprofit in the Hill District, knew some residents there and believed they would successfully pioneer a new kind of community development model, one that was very personal.
The team included mental and physical health professionals from Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh. They asked people to share medical histories, stories of stress, pain, trauma; subjected them to questions about their anger, their social circles, the strong people in their lives, the trouble makers, their coping mechanisms, their diets, their skills and their failures. FOCUS asked the residents to open their homes so crews from Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh could inspect for cracks, holes and building violations.
After some initial confusion, with cajoling by a few influential neighbors, 75 percent of the block said OK.
For many, it has been a year of bonding. They meet once a month for group dinners. They said they have found strength from neighbors, some of whom they hadn’t known before, and relief from anxieties about the stability of their homes.
Of 23 homes that were tapped for repair, 22 have been shored up. One hangs in the balance.
Last fall, Tosi Wortham had to go to live with a son in Virginia because loose bricks above the porch of her home were letting cold air seep in. One wall is bowing, and cracks run like spider veins along the foundation. A small set of concrete steps runs up the side of her home connected to a walkway that is banked up against the length of it.
The damage was beyond Rebuilding Together’s scope, said Alan Sisco, its chief operating officer.
FOCUS raised money to pay a contractor, who is ready to make the repairs, but the city owns the steps and walkway.
FOCUS’ Robert Bowden, left, speaks with Allegheny County public works personnel about an issue with a property in the 2900 block of Webster Avenue Tuesday. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
“We are asking the city to let us save Tosi’s house,” said Robert Bowden, a community organizer for FOCUS. “It’s all she has.”
Mike Gable, director of Public Works, and Charles McClain, a department engineer, recently inspected the site and told Mr. Bowden they would work with FOCUS on a solution.
To Mr. Bowden and the rest of the FOCUS team, her house is symbolic of the needs they set out to address. The home is Ms. Wortham’s anchor.
“I don’t want to let it go,” she said of the home her grandparents and parents owned before her. “I’m at a stop sign looking both ways, but I don’t know which way to go.”
Last fall, she was having “separation issues, worrying about my house” she said. “But Mr. Robert [Bowden] has been helping me with the stress level I’m on, and he’s been a blessing.”
Stress and trauma
Two institutions bookend the block — St. Luke Baptist Church and the convent of St. Benedict the Moor. Between them, about 40 homes line a steep grade, a mix of early- to mid-20th century duplexes, row houses and detached homes with yards and driveways. Most are occupied by their owners, who are cash poor and older, and in several, family ties go back generations.
The block does not wear the face of trauma. It seems tranquil. Most people work or are retired. But many said they have mourned a murder victim, know people who have been murdered or have friends who have mourned. Several said they have endured poverty and fear at some point.
But less overt forms of trauma — racism, poor education, insecure jobs, the threat of eviction — are generational and more pervasive, affecting people on quiet as well as turbulent blocks, said Matt Walsh, a therapist and community coordinator at Duquesne University’s Counseling and Well-being Center.
He researched the effects and patterns of systemic stress and trauma for his doctorate as a member of the FOCUS team.
“When people are dealing all their lives with these burdens, something’s going to break,” he said. “The FOCUS model is such an inexpensive investment in healing, and it will have more impact as we get to blocks with more kids. The earlier the intervention, the more effective it is.”
FOCUS expects to build a protocol that it can use on subsequent blocks in the Hill and that organizations can use in vulnerable neighborhoods everywhere.
Mr. Bowden, FOCUS’s man on the street, inspired confidence in residents, who said he was the assurance they needed that this intervention was not yet another effort by academics to tell a black neighborhood what it needed. He is from the neighborhood and knew Rhonda Lockett, a teacher’s aide who grew up on the block.
He tapped her to help him recruit residents to take part. She calls herself Miss Nebby. He calls her an influencer.
Residents gather for the first meeting of FOCUS’ trauma project in the 2900 block of Webster Avenue in the Hill District last summer. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
The first meeting was in her house, she said, then residents gradually began turning out at larger meeting places. They now maintain a block watch and meet regularly with Zone 2 officers. They have exchanged phone numbers and emails as a result of FOCUS’s monthly dinner gatherings.
The team’s health professionals assessed the residents’ health, helped the uninsured get insurance and directed people to the medical or mental health care they needed. For those whose properties were passed down informally, a legal team has gotten titles issued in their names.
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Rebuilding Together added value by hiring Hill District residents onto its crews. Mr. Sisco said the Webster work -— which ranged from projects under $1,000 to one around $20,000 — “was by far the most rewarding we’ve done because it was so complete and there are people there who are super committed.”
A $200,000 grant from the McAuley Ministries Foundation and $50,000 from Neighborhood Allies, a community development nonprofit, has supported the work on Webster. The team will choose subsequent blocks based on resident interest and funding.
Rev. Paul Abernathy, an Iraq war veteran, was an Orthodox minister in training when he started FOCUS Pittsburgh, a chapter of FOCUS North America. He said his experiences with clients at FOCUS resonated with the growing body of evidence about the impact that long-term, generational trauma was having on people’s capacity to live steady lives.
“You can spend one year in the Army at war, but some kids in our communities spend their whole lives” with the fear of violence every day, he said.
Such unsettled survival can undermine the best intentions to help people find jobs or buy their first homes, he said: “We want them to be healthy enough to sustain those opportunities.”
Last fall, a group from the Philadelphia area visited a block meeting to get tips on replicating the project. Pam Walker, the block’s public safety liaison, advised them not to discount the unity people already have.
“People don’t need anyone talking for them,” she said. “Don’t ask how much education people have, find out their skill sets. We have a lot of skills on this block. And we love nosy neighbors.”
Supporting each other
Gunshots behind a row of homes shocked the block last summer.
“My husband was washing dishes at the time,” said Cheryl Larry. “It sounded like it was right outside. Fortunately, with police intervention, we resolved it.”
Someone called 911, and a woman who lived with tenants who were believed to be the problem sought shelter with a neighbor. The tenants subsequently moved out, Ms. Larry said.
“We showed that together we are great and that what affects one neighbor affects us all,” she said. “Sometimes it takes an incident to show us how much we need to support each other.”
At a group dinner last winter, Ms. Lockett reported that an absent neighbor had illness in the family and a recent death. Everyone groaned as one. “We need to reach out to her to see if there’s anything we can do,” she said.
Roosevelt Pitts, who had had no connections on the block except for Ms. Wortham, said if not for FOCUS “I wouldn’t know Cheryl or Miss Rhonda. Knowing who’s around you, that we’re connected in some way, is good. That doesn’t happen much anymore.”
Jacqueline Williams said she was doubtful about the agenda at first. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be bothered,’ ” she said. “But when Rebuilding Together began working on people’s houses, I thought, ‘This is serious.’ ”
She had lived in her house for seven years when, in 2013, she lost her job as a drug and alcohol counselor. She stored her belongings and took a road trip visiting friends and family. When she returned, she was able to re-rent the house and got a job as a family counselor.
“Two weeks after I moved back, someone used a magnet to pop the trunk of my car and stole a briefcase,” she said. “I was frantic.” She said a week later, she got a call from a nun at the convent. “Whoever had taken it dumped it behind the convent.
“I hadn’t even known there was a convent on Webster. They had dried all my papers, my Bible. We sat and talked for hours.”
Pam Walker’s house belonged to her aunt and uncle when she was a child.
When her own two children were young, she took classes at the Community College of Allegheny County where she cleaned offices at night while her family babysat. She studied to be a legal assistant on her mother’s advice, she said, “but I really wanted to be a teacher.”
When she eventually got her education degree in 1999, she began teaching in Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“I’ve been there ever since,” she said. “I love what I do but I plan to retire in 2018. I want to quit on a high note, to pursue my hobbies: cooking, making wine, gardening. I want to take music lessons.”
Tamaira Binion and Jann Kelly Council were married several years ago and are among the younger residents on the block. She works in public relations at Robert Morris University and he owns a convenience store in the North Side.
“Jann was born and raised in the Hill and his parents, grandmother and sister all live nearby,” she said. “In the summer, when I get home from work, Miss Pam is out gardening and Miss Rhonda will be on her porch. Miss Rhonda will see the car and come over to ask ‘Are you coming to the meeting?’ ” she said. “Or if your car hasn’t moved for a few days, she calls: ‘Are you OK?’ ”
Before having to leave her house last October, Ms. Wortham spent several lovely afternoons on her small porch. On one such day, she watched cars lining up at the Herron Avenue stop light.
“My granddad worked on cars at Herron and Centre,” she said. “That’s how I learned to change a tire. My father redid this house. He worked for the post office.”
For 26 years, she worked with at-risk teenagers for Family Links.
“I used to cry at the stories they would tell. I’d tell them, ‘I’m so sorry you’ve had to live like this.’ It feels good to be able to feel other people’s pain. That’s why your shoulder is so close to your ear.
“I loved it, but the kids were starting to get dangerous,” she said. “Now when I see these young guys pass by the house, I always speak to them. I want them to know I’m here.”
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626.