Sojourner House MOMS expanding in Pittsburgh

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The apartment in Sankofa, a house for women recovering from addiction and their children in Homewood, needs a lot of work to become habitable again.

The carpet, a kaleidoscope of stains, will have to be replaced. So will the water heater and the kitchen stove. The holes in the ceilings need patching, and the piles of detritus they've rained onto the floor need to be cleaned up.

Another apartment had a faint odor of leaking gas.

"I smell gas -- not good," said Joann Cyganovich, executive director of Sojourner House MOMS, the house's new owner. She asked an employee to call a repairman to shut the line off.

Sojourner House MOMS, a nonprofit that offers housing to mothers struggling with addiction, bought Sankofa and another Homewood recovery house, Open Arms, from Primary Care Health Services Inc. in October. The two buildings contain a total of 21 apartments.

It will be the first time the organization has had a presence in Homewood. It runs four similar houses in East Liberty, where a sister organization, Sojourner House, also has a location.

Pointing out the damage, Ms. Cyganovich was enthusiastic about what the apartment could become. Apart from cleaning it up, she hopes to remove a wall to create more space.

"We're going to make it real nice," she said.

Sojourner House MOMS plans to begin renovations of Sankofa in April and finish by summer's end. Open Arms requires only minor repairs.

The effort will cost $1.2 million, with $350,000 covered by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and $500,000 from charities such as The Heinz Endowments, Eden Hall Foundation and Richard King Mellon Foundation. The organization still has to raise about $400,000, Ms. Cyganovich said.

Of the 12 apartments in Sankofa, about half were vacant when Sojourner House MOMS moved in. Primary Care Health Services Inc., a nonprofit that aims to increase healthcare access for the poor, left the property because it wanted to focus on health care rather than property management, said Patricia Valentine, an executive deputy director at the Department of Human Services, which helped arrange the sale. The buildings were sold for a dollar each.

When the county considered suitable owners for the houses, Sojourner House MOMS was an easy choice, Ms. Valentine said.

"Sojourner House runs services that are similar to the services that had been in Sankofa and Open Arms, and they do it very well," she said.

The residents who were living in the apartments when Sojourner House MOMS took over will be allowed to stay, Ms. Cyganovich said.

The treatment centers will make an effort to weave their residents into the neighborhood's social fabric. They've reached out to groups like the Homewood Children's Village and the Homewood Early Learning Hub in hopes that the buildings' residents can volunteer there.

The Sankofa building stands almost alone on its block at Kelly Street and North Lang Avenue, bordering a city-owned vacant lot the size of a soccer field. Ms. Cyganovich has permission from the city to use part of the lot as a garden tended by residents.

She also plans to remove the large sign on the front of the motel-style building, which she fears will stigmatize the residents.

"Just because people are poor, they don't need a label on them," Ms. Cyganovich said. "They'll be part of the neighborhood."

Gwen Williams, who has worked at Sankofa since it was run by Primary Care Health Services Inc., is hopeful about the changes being made there.

"It's a nice program, and once you get it running, it will be encouraging, uplifting for the ladies," she said. "If your heart is there -- not just to collect and pay -- you will empower these women."


Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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