From homeless to employed: Agency offers support during hard times

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A little over a year ago Sonya McCoullum, a college-educated and skilled woman, had no job, was battling depression and, to top it off, homelessness. She was a single mother with a 2 and 14-year-old and no place to go. They stayed in a hotel, with friends and family, even in their car. The future looked dim and hope was quickly fading, but with a referral to Community Human Services from her therapist, McCoullum found the help and support needed to turn things around.

ThroughItAll
THROUGH IT ALL—Sonya McCoullum, a case manager, uses her experiences to work with individuals in the programs of the Community Human Services. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Everyone has trials and tribulations, that will never go away, but there’s a difference when it’s too hard to deal with. When you can’t pick yourself up or the others around you,” said McCoullum. “But when you feel that ‘I can handle this’ and support the others that are with you, it’s easier (to get over them). I knew what the steps were, but it was just getting that lift, that support and CHS was that support.”

Now, McCoullum and her two children are living in a home in Pitcarin and she is working full-time as a case manager, helping others in similar situations, ironically at the same agency that helped her.

“Am I still struggling? Yes. Do I have hardships? Yes. But I am more happy and satisfied than I was literally a year ago,” she said.

CHS, located on Lawn Street in Oakland, is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit social service agency that offers a wide range of services to individuals in need of support to live a better quality of life. They offer services in the areas of health, housing, clothing, food and more.

Adrienne Walnoha, chief executive officer of CHS, said, “This organization was founded on the belief that people help people, it’s not organizations that help people. Often times in social services people are looked at as being a problem, but here at CHS we do not see them as a problem, we see them as unique people with gifts and give them assistance to live the lives they want to.”

CHS has served the Oakland and greater Pittsburgh area for more than 40 years and Walnoha says the agency assists 5,000 to 10,000 individuals each year; approximately 40 percent of them are African-Americans.

McCoullum said the agency’s primary goal is to make families feel they have dignity and relevance and they strive to make people feel empowered.

A few of the services offered by CHS include a supported housing program, which offers transitional housing and housing for homeless and individuals with disabilities or mental illness; a Domiciliary Care service, which offers 24 hour assistance to chronically ill or elderly individuals who require ongoing daily services; a Family Assistance and Family Foundations Early Head Start program, which offers mothers and children up to 3 with in-home training, counseling, and therapeutic services; transportation and more. CHS also offers a food pantry and a Smile and Dine program, which offers a meal that can either be picked up or delivered, all for $4.

“We do not forget that we are all neighbors. A lot of times people look at people who use human services as less than and that’s not the truth. We all have struggles, it’s just that some people do not have support,” Walnoha said.

With more people facing economic hardships, Walnoha said there has been an increase of participation in all the programs. She said when the food pantry began, they were serving 40 families, now they serve as many as 400 families a month, which includes all types of people, college students, elderly and working individuals. “Incomes are going down, but costs are going up,” she said.

With each program having its own entities, it was hard for Walnoha to give any specific requirements to become a participant, but she said most have income guidelines.

Two of CHS’ major projects are their Sleep-In For the Homeless awareness and fundraiser project, which raises money along with bringing awareness to what homelessness is and how it is an ever growing problem; and the Holiday Gift Giving project, which raises funds for participants to help fulfill their needs during the holiday season.

While things have turned around for McCoullum, she has not forgotten where she was a year ago. She said working for the program is a way to give back and since she can relate, she can make more of a grave impact.

“It’s easier (to assist clients) knowing where they are now, I’ve been there, done that. And I know what steps it had taken me to get to a better place and I’m going to do my best to show either how to take these same steps or some similar ones. Every situation is different,” she said.

For more information on CHS and its services, call 412-246-1600.

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