Programs in county can help people keep their homes


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Tina Miller has never thought of herself as poor.

Notwithstanding her perception, the fact is that Ms. Miller, 41, who has had one job or another since the age of 15, lives among the ranks of the working poor who increasingly find themselves pushed to the edge of homelessness.

She's managed to get by for years, but a combination of health problems and the poor economy has caused her to seek help with normal household expenses. She's among hundreds in Allegheny County who find themselves in similar circumstances, as evidenced by the overwhelming response to a new, $14 million program to help the working poor that had to shut down its waiting list two weeks after it opened.

The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program, funded with federal stimulus money, began Oct. 20. Joe Elliot, manager of community outreach at the county's Department of Human Services, said the Smithfield Street call center was inundated with requests.

By Oct. 26, the call center, which was receiving about 130 calls a day, established a waiting list. And after fielding some 1,173 calls, the waiting list was closed on Nov. 4, officials announced, citing an exceedingly high call volume and a lack of manpower to process all the calls.

"You get the sense that people are really struggling out there," said Mr. Elliot, whose team overseas the hot line -- 1-877-350-HPRP -- that Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Allegheny County established to provide aid to the homeless and the near homeless.

For Ms. Miller, who lives in Springdale Borough, that nightmarish reality started unfolding late last year, when her severe migraines were diagnosed as the outgrowth of benign intracranial hypertension. In other words, she suffers from an abnormal level of fluid on her brain, which not only causes her searing migraines but also consistent blackouts and some memory loss.

Because of her illness, Ms. Miller, a former nurse's aide at East Deer Personal Care Home in Creighton, was forced to stop working in April. Without her income, her husband James, a blacksmith, struggled to make rent -- $550 a month for their two bedroom apartment -- and also continue to maintain a household that includes a 6-year old daughter.

And just like that, the family building new beginnings after an August 2008 marriage, found itself on the slippery slope of unpaid bills -- rent, utilities, medical prescriptions and others.

Ms. Miller has found herself coming to terms with the reality of an illness that is not only slowly robbing her of sight, but also six months of unpaid rent and utilities, and the push to make it through each month after using up $325 in food stamps.

"These are the struggles everyday people are dealing with," said Faye Morgan, executive director of the North Hills Community Outreach, an interfaith organization that provides assistance -- financial or otherwise -- to the needy.

The organization, founded in 1987 to help families rebuild after flooding tore through the North Hills a year earlier, serves some 4,500 families annually. It came to Ms. Miller's aid by enrolling her as its first recipient of federal monies granted to the city and county to help families avoid falling into homelessness.

The North Hills Community Outreach is one of five agencies including ACTION-Housing Inc., Community Human Services, Veteran's Leadership Program, and the Urban League of Pittsburgh, which will share about $14 million granted the city and county for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

For now, Ms. Miller, who said her landlord was quickly losing patience, doesn't have to worry about rent. The North Hills organization, which received about $1.5 million from the city and county for homeless prevention, is picking it up.

In addition, Ms. Miller will receive food supplies from the agency's food pantry and help with re-establishing her credit.

The interfaith community outreach group, with offices in Hampton and Millvale, has so far received 90 referrals of clients in equally dire situations, Ms. Morgan said. Of those, 29 have been enrolled to receive financial assistance.

The objective is to give people standing at the brink of homelessness "a chance to have a break from the cycle of whatever hardship they are facing," said Ms. Morgan.

"This is not designed for the chronically homeless. We're dealing with people who can sustain themselves but for one reason or another are having a hard time. So our objective is to give them assistance, but they have to show that they are working to be self-sustaining within three months," said Patrick Fenton, director of social services and operations at ACTION-Housing Inc.

The Downtown nonprofit, which provides assistance to a number of categories of people in need, received about $2.9 million from the city and county for the homelessness prevention program.

Lori Forkin, housing developer for ACTION-Housing, said the agency has so far received 90 referrals from the county's call center -- 60 of them need rapid re-housing help because they recently lost their house or apartment and 30 need homeless prevention assistance.

And now that the program's waiting list is closed, Mr. Elliot said, all callers are being referred to either the county's Department of Human Services or service providers that had existing programs for the needy not affiliated with the homeless prevention effort.

To qualify for assistance under this program, participants must be in households at or below 50 percent of the area median income, which for a family of four is $31,250. They must have no other housing options or financial support resources to obtain housing.

McKeesport, which launched its program on Monday, is offering the same services through a partnership with the McKeesport Healthier Partnership, McKeesport Housing Authority and McKeesport Housing Corp.

The city received $500,000 in federal stimulus money, said Bethany Bauer, director of community development.

"The thing about this recession, we're seeing more and more people who are coming to us because they need our services for the first time. Many of them have never had to ask for help and now they are faced with potential homelessness," said Ms. Morgan of the North Hills Community Outreach.

"It's often a time of panic and despair."


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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