FOCUS Pittsburgh Community Trauma Initiative
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” -Dorothy Day
As I drive from my apartment in what they call Pittsburgh’s “Little Italy,” I pass by rows of early-to-mid 20th century single and split-family houses. They tell the story of the mass influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the area. They were employed at the hundreds of now-rusting and disintegrating steel mills that litter the shores of the area’s three rivers. I make my way slowly uphill, climbing past University of Pittsburgh’s Upper Campus, finally arriving at what is known as “The Hill District.”
When I tell Pittsburgh natives (who are not familiar with FOCUS) that I often go to the Hill District for work, an uneasy look appears on their face. This either comes from an ignorant fear for my safety, or because they want to know what type of business I work in that would take me there. This look of unease tells the whole story of the racial and civil dynamics that have been a part of the “Hill’s” history.
The Glory and Decline of the Hill
Until the 1960’s, The Hill District had a rich diversity of race and culture. It was known as “Little Harlem,” hosting such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Errol Garner. Things in The Hill started to change in the late 1950’s, when the City of Pittsburgh government decided that buildings in The Hill needed revitalization. The city displaced 8,000 residents from the Lower Hill to start an urban renewal project, which included building a new civic and sports arena. The displaced residents, many of whom had lived in The Hill for generations, not only lost housing, but also saw their tight-knit community disappear. Gone were the small family shops, the stoops on which everyday life was discussed and debated, and the fabric of life interwoven with community that held many families together. As families were physically displaced, their sense of community “belonging” was replaced with alienation, and municipal and racial tensions began to grow.
Late in the spring of 1968, the growing social distrust and unrest in The Hill was amplified by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The local riots, fires, and looting — which took place from April 5th until April 12th — have reverberated over the decades since then and festered into a cycle of chronic poverty, increased gang activity, drug use, and crime that has shaped the physical, mental, and spiritual health of those living in The Hill.
FOCUS Pittsburgh – A Safe Haven
FOCUS Pittsburgh is located in the heart of The Hill District, on Centre Avenue. It has become a known entity and safe haven in the community for those who need a refuge from the hardship and trauma of everyday life in the neighborhood. While there are many factors, including genetic predisposition, that contribute to the presence of mental illness, people in the lowest economic stratum are statistically two to three times more likely to suffer from mental illness than people in higher economic classes. According to an article by the State of Connecticut, which details disparities in socio-economic status and mental health: “…ethnic and racial minorities in the United States face a social and economic environment of inequality that includes greater exposure to racism, discrimination, violence, and poverty. Living in poverty has the most measurable effect on the rates of mental illness.”
Being continually exposed to repeated acts of trauma causes the primal brain mechanism of “fight-or-flight” to become the primary mode of operation. This, in turn, results in the inability to self-regulate, to establish and maintain healthy relationships, and the seeking of methods to self-soothe (i.e. drug and alcohol use).
In 2014, FOCUS Pittsburgh established a free, comprehensive medical clinic in which medical professionals, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are working together to help people deal with both the physical and mental repercussions of living in a trauma-afflicted community. The FOCUS Pittsburgh Free Health Center embodies a central theme of FOCUS’ work in the community, namely that healing bodily ailments enables the unshackling of the mind and soul of a person so that he or she may become receptive to transformational healing.
To specifically address the issue of community trauma, FOCUS Pittsburgh formed a partnership with Duquesne University to explore local causes of trauma and bring healing to those who live with mental illnesses as a result of community-based trauma. Paul Abernathy, the FOCUS Pittsburgh Director, says that the project will “establish and promote healthy, healing micro communities, and city block initiatives that will create interventions tailored to each person to improve their overall health. “
“The next step,” Paul continues, “is to address the issue of community transience, which will help the community gain a sense of stability. The team will help promote healthy community living environments. There are five key areas of measuring success that the project will use centered on the biological, psychological, socio-economic, spiritual, and relational.”
A Lasting Change
As I leave FOCUS Pittsburgh and The Hill each day, I know that FOCUS has made a difference in the community — and in me. Winding my way down the narrow streets and rows of houses, I reflect on the time I have just spent at the center. An old, faded, two-storied building — what once was an abandoned storefront — is now home to the vibrant ministry of FOCUS Pittsburgh. The transformation of an abandoned building into a health clinic and community gathering place is a personification of the transformation that FOCUS is engendering throughout The Hill. On the exterior, the building is rough and worn down by time and neglect; but on the inside, there is hope, lasting change, and love.
The seed of change has been planted. With every meal, with every ailment healed, with every word of Scripture shared, the work and outpouring of love from FOCUS Pittsburgh becomes more deeply rooted in the people of the community. Through the combined efforts of FOCUS and other civic and religious partners — and by the Grace of God – the beautiful and vibrant community that once flourished on this Pittsburgh hill can and will return.
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