Sisters Place: Providing Empowerment Through Housing in Pittsburgh
The nonprofit is helping homeless Pittsburghers get back on their feet.
When Jill Harding fled Texas to escape domestic violence in 1997, she ended up homeless and staying in a women’s shelter in Pittsburgh.
Her counselor put her in touch with Sisters Place, a nonprofit that provides housing, among other services, to homeless families in Allegheny County. Harding lived with her two sons in Sisters Place housing for two years. The townhouse they stayed in, like every Sisters Place unit, was fully furnished and filled with all the necessities they needed.
“They helped us get to where we are today. And I tell everybody — if it wasn’t for Sisters Place, I don’t think I’d be where I am today,” says Harding.
Sisters Place was founded in 1993 by the Catholic Sisters of Western Pennsylvania, a group of 14 religious communities of Catholic sisters. Today, it houses 26 families through its supportive housing program.
Families have to meet specific criteria to be housed by Sisters Place. The process starts when someone experiencing homelessness makes a call to Allegheny Link, a referral service set up by Allegheny County. If they meet Sisters Place’s criteria and there is available housing, they will be referred to a worker at Sisters Place.
Sisters Place serves families with children under the age of 24 in which the head of the household is facing a disability. That disability could be physical, mental or related to substance abuse. Families also self-identify, meaning a family does not have to subscribe to a traditional nuclear family model.
If there is a vacancy and a family has been matched with Sisters Place, it typically takes seven to 14 days until they are housed in one of Sisters Place’s properties. Twenty-seven units are scattered across the Hilltop area; Sisters Place clients are not identified as such to their neighbors, to allow anonymity and privacy.
Rent is fixed at 30% of the family’s income. If a family does not earn any money, then housing is free. Utility bills are paid in full by Sisters Place. How long a family stays depends entirely on their needs, but Melissa Ferraro, the CEO of Sisters Place, says it is typical for families to need housing for a few months to a few years.
Sisters Place has four pillars that it focuses on: empowerment, housing, wellness and advancement. To that end, the organization holds classes to teach families important life skills, from managing money to a kids housekeeping class (where children leave with toy cleaning supplies and adults leave with real cleaning supplies).
Staff frequently make contact with families to ensure they are supported. Depending on the family’s needs, a staff member could visit as frequently as once a week to help with maintaining healthy levels of housekeeping. A social services associate and a social services manager meet with clients; these meetings can occur daily, if the family requires it.
If clients want to further their education, Sisters Place can help with filling out financial aid forms and applications. Clients can be put in touch with the Brashear Association for workforce development.
Clients can also walk into the Sisters Place office in Mt. Oliver to receive informal mental health support and to be connected to other resources in the community.
For the future, Sisters Place has a concept for a combination thrift store and coffee house. This “Sip and Shop,” as Ferraro refers to it, would be a community asset and workforce development project. The business plan has been drawn up, but it is still very much a fluid concept, Ferraro says.
Sisters Place relies on volunteers to plan events and complete projects for housing clients. Volunteers also put together resource kits for clients, and for the holidays, volunteers from UPMC created holiday baking kits.
While Ferraro is glad for this support during the holidays, she hopes that the Pittsburgh community supports nonprofits outside of the holiday season.
“The holidays are the time that families and individuals and businesses are feeling really generous … My ask to our community at large would be to remember nonprofits in the summertime, in the fall, in the spring, because we need support and help all year long.”