Redevelopment effort in Hill District targets effects of long-term trauma
July 24, 2016 12:00 AM
Tiffany Kinney of the Hill District leads a break-out session in June at the first meeting of a project to fight long-term trauma in the 2900 block of Webster Avenue.
The Rev. Paul Abernathy, director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, leads a break-out session during the first meeting of the FOCUS trauma project.
Lisa Lopez Levers, professor in the Department of Counseling, Psychology and special education at Duquesne University leads a group discussion with residents during the first meeting of the FOCUS trauma project.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The 2900 block of Webster Avenue in the Hill District doesn’t look like it’s suffering. Most of the properties are in decent shape, and day in and day out, it’s fairly quiet.
Rhonda Lockett, a lifelong resident except for a stint in Washington, D.C., said most of her neighbors go to church and many are educated and employed.
Yet 75 percent of the block — 36 households — have agreed to open their doors and their lives to community organizers, medical and behavioral health professionals and to each other for the opportunity to get relief from long-term emotional stress and trauma.
Led by the Rev. Paul Abernathy, director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, a social services agency in the Hill, Pittsburgh’s pilot effort in what is known as Trauma-Informed Community Development has few models nationally and all are too new to report long-term results.
The FOCUS team said the Hill District project would be the nation’s first to try a block-by-block approach at healing an entire neighborhood.
Trauma-Informed Community Development grew out of research that found underlying causes of violence, homelessness, joblessness, poverty, addiction and abuse in exposure to chronic emotional stress and trauma. The premise is that if people can get help digging out from trauma and start to heal, they can get their own traction to improve their relationships, the well-being of their block and what happens on it, Rev. Abernathy said.
“Trauma is the most challenging problem we have” in the African-American community, he said. “We are seeing people get jobs and lose jobs, get housing and lose housing, not because they are stupid or bad but because they are wounded. We want them to be healthy enough to sustain opportunities.”
The project has $250,000 in funding from the McAuley Ministries Foundation, the grant-making arm of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, and Neighborhood Allies, an advocacy nonprofit in community development. Subsequent blocks will be chosen based on the interest of residents and the availability of funding.
He said the seed was planted in him when he was eight months into a tour of duty with the Army in Iraq in 2003.
“A psychologist talked to us about post-traumatic stress,” he said. “He said this [combat] experience might make many of us unable to reintegrate into society. I got into the ministry when I got home and realized something terrifying: that when people walked into FOCUS needing IDs, clothes, bus passes [and medical care], they also talked about horrific pain in their lives. I saw so much more pain and trauma in my own neighborhood than I saw in the Army.”
The psychic wounds of combat veterans and their resulting dysfunction in society have been described by behaviorists for decades, but only recently has the discussion come to the neighborhood level.
The pioneering block
FOCUS’s campaign to find the pioneering block began last fall. Robert Bowden was one of nine behavioral health community organizers who began knocking on doors. With help from the state Department of Human Services, the block was identified, and Mr. Bowden asked Ms. Lockett to help him encourage people to participate.
Ms. Lockett, who said she is known as Miss Nebby, got 10 people to the first meeting at her house. The number has since tripled. The most recent meeting was at St. Luke Baptist Church, one of two spiritual anchors on the block. The other is the convent of St. Benedict the Moor.
The 2900 block of Webster slopes to its end at Herron Avenue. It includes flat-roofed brick duplexes, homes with front porches, an apartment building, a few ranch houses and cottage-style boxes, a few vacant lots, a few vacant structures and the city’s bomb squad headquarters.
Residents include immigrants from Jamaica and South Sudan and people who have lived their entire lives on Webster or elsewhere in the Hill.
Ms. Lockett said many of the people she organized associate trauma with the words blunt force and not with the more pervasive conditions that many people have had to normalize.
A teacher’s aide at St. Benedict the Moor School, she said one day she called the mother of a child who came to school sick and the mother said she had to send him because her job was not sustaining enough for child care or secure enough for her to miss a day.
“And she’s the one keeping that family going,” Mr. Bowden said. “She’s a soldier. At FOCUS, we can give our time and emotional support. Sometimes, people need a respite just to think.”
Matt Walsh, a practicing therapist and community engagement coordinator at the Duquesne University Counseling and Wellbeing Center, trained the behavioral health community organizers and has worked on community violence research with FOCUS. He said the FOCUS team could help connect that mother to a resource for child care. By making connections within her own block, she might even find a better job.
He said each individual will have a hope plan and that the block will have a collective hope plan. Individual therapy can be provided at FOCUS’s free clinic. “Another thing that could come out of this is that people may want to share their stories, such as a healing circle.”
Mr. Bowden said nearly every African-American he knows has suffered the loss of a loved one to violence, knows someone who has, has witnessed it or all of the above.
Fear of violence, addiction and physical and verbal abuse are even more common, said Lisa Lopez Levers, professor of counselor education at Duquesne University.
“Most people can right themselves after one traumatic event,” she said, but sustained trauma and fear “throw the psyche into chaos.” A mother customizing her children to lie on the floor to watch TV because a bullet might come through the window is a good mother in a horrible situation, she said. “That is a profound message to anybody who does not have to live like that.”
In joining the FOCUS effort in the Hill, Ms. Lopez Levers said she assessed the impact FOCUS is having with its other services — notably free dental, vision, medical and psychiatric care, which is supported by foundations — and believes the trauma project hits all the notes.
“I looked at this carefully because I have seen a lot of pie in the sky,” she said. “But this project has such implications. If it works on one block, it can work on the next. If it works in the Hill it can work in other neighborhoods and throughout the country.”
Recognizing that some burdens have quicker fixes, the team has committed $50,000 toward the most critical home repairs and maintenance each property owner has. Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, which recruits trainees and volunteers from the neighborhoods it works in, will begin those repairs next month.
Within months, the residents will establish a block watch. Each participating resident will have a health assessment. The team will help those who need help sorting out medical coverage. Residents whose properties have tangled titles will get help updating their deeds.
Lifelong resident Darnell Palmer said he hopes his block “can be a beacon in the Hill” for other blocks to emulate.
At a recent gathering of about 30 residents, police Zone 2 community resource officer Antoine Davis pledged his support and passed out his card.
“This is a critical point in society, and we have a great need for unity,” he said, adding that the police never know in any situation who might try to shoot at them. “We have to think about this every day.”
The connection of that anxiety with anxiety among residents in the neighborhood is all too clear in discussions Mr. Bowden has had for years as a social worker. One of his efforts was to engage at-risk youth — easy to find but not easy to subvert, he said.
“I said to one kid, ‘What are you going to do with that [gun]? If you commit a crime, it never goes away. You’re mitigating all the things people before you fought for.’ He said he’d rather be caught with it than without it.”
At the recent gathering, Rev. Abernathy told residents that by early next year, the block will begin to “engage the people who are negative influences on the block. It will require our police partners, creativity and a united front. We will stand with you as you build your block up.”
Louise Powe, who lives on Watt Street and attended out of curiosity, raised her hand. “I just want to say, I’m jealous,” she said. “When can we get this?”
Mr. Bowden told her to start promoting the idea among her neighbors now. “Plant a seed on your block,” he said. “That will make it easier when we come knocking.”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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