Unprecedented. That’s how two nonprofit organizations describe the increase in the number of southwestern Pennsylvania residents who need health care assistance, mental health treatments, food, safe shelter and housing, and much more, all because they cannot afford it.

The response? A collaboration between Compassion Corner, a new model of service developed by Catholic Charities, the primary social service arm of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Gift of Mary, a new nonprofit organization that will create a new temporary shelter for women escaping violence and experiencing homelessness.

Compassion Corner will be located at 111 Boulevard of the Allies, the former Diocesan Pastoral Center Downtown, when Catholic Charities moves from its Ninth Street site. Gift of Mary — connected to the Red Door mission of Divine Mercy Parish, located at the St. Mary of Mercy Church building at 202 Stanwix St. — will be across the street on First Avenue, with 18 beds to provide immediate housing for women in need. Renovations have begun; the target date to open Compassion Corner is June 2024, and a capital campaign is underway to finance both projects. The total need — for Catholic Charities’ purchase of the building, expanded and new programs, and Gift of Mary’s shelter and operating support — is $17 million.

Leaders of the effort provided information on the collaboration at the final Sharing the Light speaker series of St. Jude Parish at Sacred Heart Church in Shadyside last week, which were led by Mary Lou McLaughlin. They repeated several times that a major goal is to not only expand to meet the increased demand for services and help clients stabilize their lives but also to not duplicate what is already offered in the region. They will achieve the latter by developing even more partnerships with more agencies and nonprofit organizations. Catholic Charities board plans to expand its current services by 33% over three years with this initiative, according to Christopher Scoletti, its board president.

Susan Rauscher, executive director of Catholic Charities, said her board of directors decided eight years ago that long-term solutions had to be found for the more than 20,000 people the nonprofit serves on average annually in its free medical and dental care clinic, housing and shelter support, pregnancy and parenting program, senior services, mental wellness counseling, and more.  Last year it provided 23,000 people with 300,000 to 350,000 acts of service, meaning interactions between a staff person and a client.

She explained that health care has changed greatly since Catholic Charities opened its free health care clinic in 2007.

On the transactional side, Catholic Charities met people’s immediate needs right away. “We were doing it pretty well,” Rauscher said. “But we kept seeing people coming back to us. We could almost count the days when they would come back to us. So in our [board’s] strategic planning, we decided to look for long-term solutions so they don’t come back to us especially for the same problem. It became our goal and our mission. … This is where Compassion Corner was born.  The new program grew out of the interactions with those people.” 

The larger building will enable Catholic Charities to expand its services and offer new ones. Plans call for increasing the number of dental chairs from six to 11, and a proposal has been made to add pediatrics. Prime among the new offerings will be an early involvement mental wellness program. It will use arts therapy to make a projected 500 clients over the next three years more comfortable about counseling, then moving them into supportive mental wellness workshops and sessions.

“It’s just being flexible and getting the transactional done,” Rauscher said, “but also the beginnings of the relational. This ability to take this foundational piece of Compassion Corner, everything we’ve been working on for eight years, and blow it up even bigger will enable us to do more things and have more success with those long-term solutions to getting these people stable.”

That’s important because client numbers keep increasing across the six-county service area — Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington — that Catholic Charities works across.  

Finding steady family sustaining employment for many of the clients is critical, too, Rauscher said. Many of the clients have difficulties, compounded by “something in the resume, something in their past that puts them into the no pile [of resumes] instead of the yes pile.”

In its fundraising materials, Catholic Charities points out that many individuals and families served by it live in poverty or are surviving paycheck to paycheck. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7% of Allegheny County’s population live in poverty, and the 2020 Pennsylvania United for ALICE report, sponsored by the United Way, 26.7% of its households have adults who work but don’t earn enough to cover emergency costs. 

One solution Compassion Corner will offer clients is the Gismondi Job Training Program that will provide broadband telecommunications training for adults seeking employment in jobs that install, test and troubleshoot infrastructure for telephone, television or internet systems. The three-month course will help a projected 500 individuals earn five certificates, leading to a 90% employability rate over the next three years, according to the fundraising materials.

Rauscher said the work is possible because of her staff who don’t just walk through the door each morning to start to work “but blaze through it.” And they share in the nonprofit’s vision to getting more people stable so more people can come in. 

“Our dream is to put ourselves out of business,” she said. “We have plenty to do right now. Another piece, something that is critically important, is this role of being a collaborator with all our partners.” 

The Rev. Christopher Donley, pastor of Divine Mercy Parish, told the audience last week that the joint effort is letting him come full circle, as he worked for Catholic Charities for two years after graduating from college. 

“Catholic Charities just does incredible work.  For it to be moving next door to us, it’s just incredible,” he said.

His church’s Red Door mission has expanded from serving lunches to serving dinners and distributing the donations of clothing and toiletries that come from every church in the diocese. But he and his staff want to do more. He said Red Door served almost 500,000 meals last year and that his staff and volunteers “work their tails off” to find a way to provide any time they see a need not being met.

One day, Donley said, he found a woman sleeping in a pew at his church. This happens often, he said, but her story resonated with him.

“She didn’t know where she was,” he said. “She just came in because she was cold. She had left an abusive relationship, and after she arrived Downtown, she had been sleeping on the streets for two days. She just came in because the door was open.”

He took her downstairs, and he and the staff and volunteers talked to her. They found that she had family in the South, and they connected her with them. She is doing fine now, Donley said.

Her plight and those of many other similar women who have been abused or abandoned has led to Gift of Mary, and a temporary women’s shelter that will not be far from his church. “The bishop helped us acquire a building, and the renovations are being done right now,” Donley said.

 So as they wait for those to be completed, they will keep bringing women into the Red Door. Donley reminded those gathered for the panel discussion that the Holy Family kept searching for a place for Jesus to be born after being turned away from inns and places of shelter.

He said he never thought his mission would be with a women’s shelter, but it’s happening with Catholic Charities, with the diocese. “It’s a dream come true. It’s amazing,” Donley said. “We’re the safety net in order to hopefully help these women to be able to get back on their feet, to send them to another shelter or send them to a number of partners who have support for this group within this city.”

Scoletti started the session by describing the vision for Compassion Corner, and the connection between his organization and Gift of Mary.

“It is about creating a place for compassion, healing and hope,” he told the gathering people gathered for the session “that allows for families and individuals to break a cycle of poverty.  …  Two different organizations — Compassion Care and Gift of Mary — are coming together to form a campus of healing. This campus will be a hub Downtown that resolves to help them with other problems and get them to a better place.”  

Scoletti came to Catholic Charities about nine years ago when he didn’t feel he was doing much outside of work and his mother suggested he volunteer there. When he met some of the homeless people at a warming center, “I realized how connected we all are and how one decision, one tragedy is all that separates our lives and those who are less fortunate … It’s incredible once you get involved, the impact you can have.”

Monsignor John Kozar, who is in residence at St. Jude, led the question and answer portion of the evening, and he reminded everyone that Catholic Charities is replicated in every diocese in the United States and most countries around the world, reaching out to those with special needs as a result of poverty, abandonment, oppression and war.

He saw it firsthand during a visit to Ukraine in 2014. “Our memories are short. That was the beginning of Russia’s assault in eastern Ukraine. Those were very ugly days,” he said.

Upward of 1 million people from the east were scrambling to get out, trying to flee and not knowing if they would ever come back. They came by the trainloads to where he was staying. What happened next, Kozar said, was amazing.

Catholic Charities there made the call to Catholics in the country to come to the train station and welcome these people into their homes and bring them much needed resources. “I was blessed to be there,” the monsignor said. “People were arriving by the thousands, sometimes with five, six children, maybe with one bag over their shoulder, [wearing] tattered shoes [and] ugly, dirty clothing. They had been traveling for several days.”

He asked everyone to consider that experience is “the essence of Catholic Charities as we consider this wonderful initiative.”  

“In effect, they’re here this evening to mobilize us to come to the train station,” he said. “They’re mobilizing us to come to Compassion Corner, with our support, whatever form that takes. Our prayer, always, our financial gifts, [or] maybe we have access to some special resources that we can share, maybe as volunteers. Whatever form that may take, we’re called to mobilize and come to Compassion Corner and be partners with them.”

He presented the panelists with a check for the capital campaign: “We will be a model for other parishes to become part of Compassion Corner.”

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.