Housing First

news analysis
NIMBY and Housing for the Mentally Ill
Apartments in Pittsburgh Neighborhood Prompt Battle

Listen Listen to Joanne Silberner's report.

Rocky Waters
Rocky Waters
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Virginia Barnes
Virginia Barnes
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Photos: David Banks, NPR Online

"As a person who is trying to be Christ-like, you just don't shut people off. You just don't give up on them. But I don't know how many times you keep giving them the same chance. I really do feel very sorry for them, but what are you supposed to do?"

Virginia Barnes, a longtime resident of Pittsburgh's Manchester neighborhood, on church-sponsored apartments for homeless men just blocks from her home and church.

Rhonda Brandon
Rhonda Brandon
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Rev. John Welch
Rev. John Welch
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Photos: David Banks, NPR Online

"I've been all over this city -- I see more dope going on here than I seen anywhere else. We are an improvement to this area..."

Rocky Waters, homeless for 28 years and now living in church-sponsored housing, on the crime he sees in his new Manchester neighborhood

July 30, 2002 -- The NIMBY phenomenon is all too familiar in many American neighborhoods. Try to build a prison, power plant, youth shelter or just about anything else in a residential area, and the response is usually "Not In My Back Yard."

The response is often the same when someone with serious mental illness tries to move in. Mental health advocates are finding that people with disabilities usually have more success in a place of their own, rather than in an institution or even a group home. But they often encounter community resistance.

In the third installment of NPR's series on finding homes for people who need support and services, Joanne Silberner visits a Pittsburgh, Pa. neighborhood that feels squeezed between its own needs -- and its duty to others.

The Manchester area of Pittsburgh is a neighborhood on its way back from tough times, and the Manchester Citizens Corporation community group is playing a big role in that comeback. But Juniata Street, in the heart of Manchester, is still a tough place to live. Drugs are openly sold on the corner and gunshots are not uncommon.

So when word got back to the community group's executive director, Rhonda Brandon, that a church had rented apartments in a Juniata Street building to house four homeless and mentally ill men, she immediately called a meeting with the church.

Brandon's group felt that Juniata Street had enough challenges already -- and Manchester had more than its fair share of housing for the homeless, the disabled, addicts and the mentally ill. But Janet Holtz of Northside Common Ministries explained that her group had grant money that had to be spent immediately -- and the four homeless men were legally entitled to rent the apartments.

Also at that meeting was 76-year-old Manchester resident Virginia Barnes. She's been on the Manchester Citizens Corporation board since 1989, when her husband died and she took over his seat. The couple raised four children in Manchester, and she's taught Sunday school for decades. She's proud of her neighborhood.

Barnes agreed with others at the meeting that these houses could hurt the neighborhood. "If you live in a very prosperous neighborhood, they just don't tolerate things like that," she tells Silberner. But since the contentious meeting between the church and the community group, Virginia has been in conflict between her desire to have the men move out of Manchester and her Christian faith.

"As a person who is trying to be Christ-like, you just don't shut people off," she says. "You just don't give up on them. But I don't know how many times you keep giving them the same chance. I really do feel very sorry for them, but what are you supposed to do?"

For the men living at the apartment building, the church program is a true sanctuary. There is a supervisor there 24 hours a day, making sure the men take their medication. The apartments are basic, but comfortable.

Before finding a home on Juniata Street, Rocky Waters was living on the streets for 28 years. His last address was a graveyard. He's been diagnosed with severe depression and alcoholism.

But now Waters has his own bed, a kitchenette, television, and a plush recliner chair. He walks with difficulty, scarred by years of injury and deprivation. His right hand is a gnarled claw -- the result of a train accident where, he says, he had to cut off his own finger to free himself.

Waters says the neighbors have nothing to fear from him, and he discounts the notion that the church-sponsored apartments are holding the neighborhood back. "I've been all over this city -- I see more dope going on here than I seen anywhere else," he tells Silberner. "We are an improvement to this area...."

A few blocks away is Bidwell Presbyterian, where Virginia Barnes is a church elder. The situation on Juniata Street, she says, has been bothering her more and more. She is good friends with Rev. John Welch, who is unequivocally in favor of having the men in the neighborhood. "It sounds like a potential blessing," Welch says. "That is the love ethic in action."

But his words keep Barnes on the fence. "I can't be against those people," she says. "I cannot fully be against them. I cannot fully be for them."

Manchester Citizens Corporation is pressuring the city council to close down the apartments. Northside Common Ministries has decided to move two of the men into a two-bedroom apartment in another neighborhood -- because it's safer, they say, not because of community opposition.

Rocky Waters, however, says he will stay in Manchester. He doesn't want to share an apartment with someone else -- and his case worker says Waters can handle Manchester's rougher edges.

Other Resources

• The Manchester Historical Society touts the neighborhood's architectural heritage and easy access to downtown Pittsburgh.

Northside Common Ministries

• Bidwell Presbyterian Church is part of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, representing 160 churches in the Pittsburgh area.


Click below to view photo gallery. Photo by David Banks, NPR Online

Photo gallery View a photo gallery of images from the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
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