A 2016 story in the Post-Gazette, “No Safe Harbor: McKees Rocks, Homestead left with clusters of mentally ill residents,” was a wake-up call for Focus on Renewal, and other groups that serve McKees Rocks.
It was just one of the problems facing the neighborhood, but a glaring one.
“We’re surrounded by generational poverty,” says Lydia Morin, director of community engagement and enterprise for Focus on Renewal (FOR) in McKees Rocks. “Kids were going to the library, and librarians could just see their need. But the librarians didn’t have a place to point them to for help.”
So they decided to build that one place. It’s called the Community Resource Center (CRC), a sort of one-stop shop for hope and purpose.
Though much of Pittsburgh has been able to put the collapse of the steel industry in the rear-view mirror, for some parts of Western Pennsylvania, it never really ended. Old riverside mill towns like McKees Rocks got the worst of it in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and have been hindered by every economic downturn and wave of deindustrialization since.
This coincided with decades of middle-class flight to the suburbs, and housing discrimination (finally addressed in the Sanders Consent Decree) that steered poor Black residents to certain communities. With the closure of the state mental hospitals (like Mayview in 2008), another fragile population clustered in McKees Rocks.
Focus on Renewal (FOR) has been active in helping McKees Rocks and surrounding communities since 1969. Under the direction of Sister Sarah Crotty, they invited 40 other regional service providers to convene the Sto-Rox Mental Health Providers Summit, to begin to address the problem.
“The population we serve is 25 percent elderly, 25 percent entrenched in generational poverty, 25 percent active drug and alcohol users and 25 percent with mental illness,” says Melody Carter-Frye, director of the CRC. “That’s something that should be embraced. It’s why we’re here, to meet these challenges head-on.”
The key, is “not to deny it,” says Morin. “Instead, we decided, ‘Let’s be the model for how to serve our neighbors.’”
The concept for the Community Resource Center is to provide a more holistic approach to helping the region’s vulnerable citizens. It starts by putting as many services as possible under one roof—everything from drug/alcohol treatment to food. This springs from a recognition that the problems of poverty are complicated and interconnected. People who have a hard time putting food on the table sometimes also need help finding jobs, which can be more challenging if there’s a lack of reliable transportation or mental health problems. You can’t really solve one problem without addressing the others.
“You can’t expect someone to go to Western Psych [in Oakland] three times a week if they don’t have transportation,” says Morin.
Once word got out, there was interest from all over the region. Partners include the Sto-Rox Family Health Center, McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, Chartiers Center, and the Allegheny Children’s Initiative.
“Other organizations who want to be in Sto-Rox can have space in the CRC,” notes Morin. “It’s been an underserved area. North Hills Community Outreach is putting an office in CRC. They came immediately. They do antipoverty programs and pathways to employment.”
It’s hoped that the proximity of programs and providers can address another common problem. Often different services don’t communicate with each other. Here, they’ll be in the same place. If someone notices that a medication seems to be over-prescribed, for example, this makes it easier to check.
Everyone seeking services gets to develop their own comprehensive plan. That starts with setting achievable goals.
“Instead of people coming by and hanging out . . . ” notes Carter-Frye, “We ask, ‘What are you looking to accomplish here?’”
A grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation, based Downtown, made the CRC project viable.
“They focus on serving the mentally ill and erasing the stigma of mental illness,” says Carter-Frye. “That was a vote of confidence.”
There’s some intended synergy with Focus on Renewal’s Father Ryan Arts Center next door, carved out of a long gone department store. It’s a similarly multifaceted project, housing everything from the aforementioned library to a coffee shop that provides barista training, to theater space for children’s plays by Gemini Theater.
At long last, there seems to be a critical mass of good programs coming together in McKees Rocks, indicating that there’s more than just hope for better times ahead.
“412 Food Rescue is dropping off food, and they’re making meals,” says Morin.
“We also knew there wasn’t a strong after-school presence in McKees Rocks that wasn’t sports,” she adds, so they brought in Pete Spynda, one of Pittsburgh’s top promoters and DJs (Pandemic, Weather Permitting, Pittonkatonk), as director of arts & culture. He works with teens on projects ranging from screen-printing to video production, ceramics, dance and more.
There’s a lot of moving parts here, but Focus on Renewal has found a fairly good way to sum it all up with a simple slogan: “Show up.” It’s taken from an equally blunt quote from FOR founder Father Don Fisher: “You can’t get it done if you don’t show up.”