On any night in the United States, 643,067 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Of that number, 238,110 are in families.
Sophie, a 29-year-old mother of two, originally from Homewood, never expected to be part of that statistic. But in December 2011, her life unraveled.
She found help through Hearth, Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training and Housing. The agency provides transitional housing for homeless women and their children, in addition to education and counseling while the women work toward self-sufficiency.
Hearth's housing for women is temporarily located in the South Hills at Carriage Park Apartments in Scott while its new campus is built on Mount Royal Boulevard in Shaler.
Formerly known as North Hills Affordable Housing, Hearth began operating at Benedictine Place in the North Hills in 1995 -- providing space for 15 women and their children for up to two years. Its new facility will be completed in June 2013 and will accommodate 20 families.
Sophie, who chose not to give her last name, found Hearth after calling a list of human services numbers for help. In November 2011, she returned to the Pittsburgh area from Omaha, Neb., where she had attended the College of St. Mary on a scholarship. Through the school's Mothers Living and Learning Program, her daughter and son could live with her on campus. Her son returned to Pittsburgh earlier due to a court ruling in a custody battle. Sophie and her daughter returned to Pittsburgh after 21/2 years in Omaha with no housing arrangement, dependent on friends and family.
When family relationships broke down in December, she said she began calling shelters and other services.
She did a telephone interview with Hearth, crying. She set up an appointment for a few days later. The night before her meeting, she said she was asked to leave the place she and her daughter were staying. She tried all of the homeless shelters and there were no openings.
Sophie recalled driving around Pittsburgh in search of a safe place to park. "I put our sheets in the front seat. I didn't sleep. I tried, because I had a job interview the next day as well as the appointment with Hearth," she said.
Sophie had always held a job. She attended Duquesne University at night. A graduate of Keystone Oaks High School, she had her daughter at 17 and then a son. Sophie received a scholarship from Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Foundation at age 25 and began taking classes at Duquesne at night. At 26, she decided to take her daughter and son and attend college in Omaha.
"I went because there was housing. ... The plan was always to come back to Pittsburgh," Sophie said. "I missed my son." She now shares custody with the boy's father.
Sophie has been with Hearth for six months. Judy Eakin, executive director for the nonprofit, remembered Sophie's interview. "We were so concerned. We weren't going to let Sophie and her daughter leave and sleep in their car again," she said.
That day and the next, the agency scrambled to pull together an apartment for her while a volunteer contacted La Roche College and found housing for the family overnight with the nuns.
"I'm so blessed by this program," Sophie said. "They do so much. It's not just a ready-made apartment, but a food pantry, there are transportation vouchers for travel to school, counseling, and a clothing pantry. You are always in contact with them. It makes it easier to succeed."
Hearth is in a transition of its own. "We don't like that we are under two different spaces. We need to be under one roof," Ms. Eakin said.
While the families in the program are scattered throughout the Carriage Park complex, they come together for family nights and activities and meet weekly with the counseling staff.
Helping Hearth at Carriage Park are volunteers from Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church's annual Mission Possible week, who are collecting clothing and providing a family night dinner and activities.
Hearth was founded in 1989 out of a need by nonprofits in the North Hills to find transitional housing for homeless suburban women with children, Ms. Eakin said. " ... Shelters only help for 30 days, so transitional housing was pursued," she said. They found space with the Benedictine Sisters after St. Benedict High School closed.
In the converted school, which was put up for sale last year, Hearth created transitional housing for its clients and began a $1.5 million capital campaign to build the facility in Shaler. Total cost of the project is $7.4 million, of which all but $1.5 million is secured through tax credit funding and county and state government funding. The program serves all of Allegheny County.
To be eligible, women must be homeless, have dependent children, agree to attend school and agree to the required meetings, which include learning life skills and case management.
Apartments are inspected twice a month and a fee of 30 percent of the resident's public assistance income is required. During the two years, the goal is to finish a certificate or other educational program to obtain a marketable skill, find a job and permanent housing.
In the past five years, Hearth said 84 percent of its residents found permanent housing and 75 percent secured full-time employment.
Sophie is on track to finish her four-year degree in Information Technology at La Roche College.
For information or to volunteer, visit www.Hearth-bp.org.
Jill Thurston, freelance writer: email@example.com.