Big, Brave, and Bold
The story of HEARTH, a supportive housing service for survivors of domestic violence and their families.
It’s one moment. One deep breath. One choice that changes your family’s future. You pack a bag, take a small, warm hand in yours. And you leave. You don’t know where to go, what you’re going to do, how you’re going to move forward. But it’s better than here.
This fear and uncertainty is a stark reality for many women and families fleeing domestic violence. It’s a reality that in some cases leads to a bitter cycle of homelessness.
Into this cycle steps HEARTH.
Standing for “Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training, and Housing,” HEARTH is an organization that provides supportive services and housing to help homeless families who are survivors of domestic violence or other trauma. HEARTH empowers these families to become independent and economically self-sufficient, with the goals of preventing homelessness and promoting safe, sustainable future opportunities.
As HEARTH’s Executive Director Judy Eakin says, “We offer a hand up, not a hand-out.”
In 1989, a group of leaders in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburb met to discuss the rise in homelessness among women and families in the community. They recognized that there was a lack of affordable housing for these families in the area—families in crisis—and they wanted to do something to help. They decided to open a transitional housing facility that would prepare homeless female heads of households to become self-sufficient. Grant money began to trickle in, and community support continued to grow. By June 1995, North Hills Affordable Housing welcomed its first family into Benedictine Place—the top two floors of the former St. Benedict’s Academy building. In 1997, this group became HEARTH.
In 2011 the Benedictine Sisters sold their property, and HEARTH was forced to move to a new location. Now in a larger renovated facility, the organization serves 31 families through two programs: HEARTH HOMES, its core transitional housing program and HEARTH at Benet Woods, the first affordable rental-housing program in Northern Allegheny County.
Up until 2016, HEARTH got about 40% of its funding through HUD. But in May 2016, HUD made the decision to halt funding for transitional housing programs, switching to only rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing. Services like HEARTH cold no longer adequately protect their residents’ identities. Plus, they couldn’t require that residents meet certain goals as part of the housing program. To HEARTH’s founders, this wasn’t acceptable.
“How do you help families move forward? That’s what we were asking ourselves,” Eakin explains. “We didn’t just want to offer an apartment building. We want to help these women and families create goals and become self-sufficient with their finances, employment, and housing.”
The alternative to accepting government funds was daunting, but HEARTH recognized that there was so much more at stake. “We needed to acknowledge that there were separate needs for domestic violence survivors in terms of their safety,” Eakin says. “To truly uphold our mission to support these women, we had to move away from HUD, which meant raising all of our funds on our own.”
“We knew that we’d take a loss for a couple of years, but it was absolutely worth it. It was big, brave, and bold. It was the right thing to do,” she adds with a smile.
Families can stay with at HEARTH for a maximum of 24 months, but that timetable is based on their education. Once women move into an apartment, they meet with HEARTH staff to talk through their goals and options for their future careers. Then they work together to come up with a plan that is focused on education and job training—everything from nursing school to culinary school.
“It’s one of the reasons why I think so many people and organizations in our community are so willing to support HEARTH,” Eakin says. “People really want to help people who want to help themselves.”
One of our employees at Peoples, Wendy West-Hickey, shares her own experience volunteering for HEARTH, and describes how this organization’s mission resonated with her.
“I first became involved with HEARTH as a volunteer with my moms’ group about 20 years ago,” West-Hickey recalls. “At the time, I remember relating really strongly to these mothers of young children and thinking that, if something happened that caused me to flee my home, I would really have nowhere to go. Over the years, I’ve watched the organization grow and change, and I’ve seen the women that they serve achieve amazing results. It is both a safe haven for these families and a pathway to a secure future for both the moms and their children.”
For many of the women who come to HEARTH, taking that first step towards independence is an extremely emotional, difficult process. The families who come to HEARTH have one to four children, ranging in ages from newborn to 18. The average mother is between 24-45 years old. 30-60% experience mental health issues, 10-30% are recovering from substance abuse, and 95% are in poverty.
“But our goal is to help them to escape from those statistics, and help others understand the whole picture,” Eakin stresses.
“For example, we’ll work with school districts to help these women create stronger relationships with their kids’ teachers. We get feedback like ‘so-and-so isn’t engaged, she never comes to parent-teacher conferences,’” Eakin says. “But many school districts aren’t on a bus line, and the women we work with don’t have access to a car or the money for an Uber. Many of these women are working and going to school at the same time, and their schedules aren’t flexible.”
“We try to help educate these schools and create lines of communication,” she explains, “and more often than not, these schools will find that the women we work with want to be involved with their kids’ education, if they’re just given the opportunities to do so.”
Not only does HEARTH strive to break stereotypes about families who have experienced homelessness, they also want to provide support beyond housing. By agreeing to live at HEARTH, women must set weekly and monthly goals for themselves, and they meet regularly with a mentor to help keep them on track. Goals can be anything from helping their child with homework, setting up a savings account, passing a test in school, or even cooking a new meal for their family. As women meet these goals, they receive points, which can be redeemed at the HEARTH Store for things like diapers, feminine products, or even toys for their kids.
“It is so much more than housing,” Eakin emphasizes. “We offer therapy, seminars about things like personal finances and budgeting. There’s even an Early Head Start classroom right here in our building, which is such a huge help to women who are trying to juggle work, school, and family.”
Walking through HEARTH’s building, you see a computer lab, a small fitness center, a food pantry, and classrooms. But more than that, you see a true community that has evolved here—a place where these women can really support each other, and where their children can feel that sense of safety and stability.
“When these women leave, we want them to be confident that they have what it takes to maintain a safe, stable life,” Eakin says. “We want them to be optimistic about their future, and to see all of these new possibilities for them and for their children.”
Once you see the work that HEARTH does every day, it’s easy to believe in those possibilities. They truly are changing lives one family at a time.