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Strength Inc. restoring buildings, the homeless

Pittsburgh Post GazetteBy Ann Belser,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Donald Henson is moving out of temporary housing into a permanent residence.

The move to an efficiency apartment is a big step up from the homeless shelter in which he spent time in 2005 after losing his apartment.

Mr. Henson, 53, is not the only one in the equation to have hit bottom. The Wilkinsburg building into which he is moving was once dilapidated and in need of help.

Strength Inc., which runs human services programs in the borough, can be credited with helping both. The four-story building on Wood Street officially opened March 14 with a ribbon-cutting by officials from Strength Inc., Allegheny County and Wilkinsburg, as well as the bankers who financed the project and the contractors who did the work.

Strength Inc. provided temporary housing for Mr. Henson after he left a shelter on the North Side in 2005. While he was there, he watched as, across the street, the agency renovated the Generations Building, cleaning and pointing the stone block on the early 20th-century building and creating 15 efficiency apartments on the top three floors. The ground floor will be used for offices and businesses.

Mr. Henson’s slide into homelessness goes back to 1996, when he was working at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center while acting as a professional wrestler on the side. In the ring, he was Mohammed Abdullah from Sudan.

During a match, instead of jumping from the ropes into the ring, he fell backward onto a concrete floor. His injuries left him unable to work and he lost his apartment.

He moved into Strength Inc.’s bridge housing program as part of the organization’s life management program. There he learned budgeting and life skills, like how to interview for a job.

The agency also worked with him on managing his health problems. He said in addition to injuries to his hip and back, he suffers from heart problems.

And so, while he was rebuilding his life with Strength Inc., the agency was renovating the building that will be his home.

The Rev. Marcus Harvey, giving a tour to Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato last week, showed how the agency used $4.2 million to renovate the building. Allegheny County provided $1.2 million and the rest was raised through private financing and historic tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The marble staircases have been restored. Each of the top three floors has a laundry room. Each of the apartments has a table with two chairs, a galley kitchen along one wall, a bedroom area that is not separated with a door from the rest of the apartment and a bathroom equipped with grab bars to help residents in and out of the bathtub.

In addition to the apartments, each floor also has large storage closets for each of the residents.

“This has been a big project,” Mr. Harvey said. “We do programs. We don’t do buildings.”

But for years he has worked to rehabilitate the buildings on all four corners of the intersection of Wood and Franklin streets. This one will be occupied by men and women who are agency clients, but it will be managed by ACTION-Housing Inc.

Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said the building was built between 1900 and 1910.

“You’re looking at a historic block in an historic neighborhood,” he said to the crowd that had assembled for the ribbon-cutting. “You can see here the reservoir of architecture that can be used to rejuvenate Wilkinsburg.”

Mr. Henson said he likes living in Wilkinsburg, just two blocks from a Save-A-Lot grocery store that opened last month. His rent will be paid with 30 percent of his income from Social Security disability. The rest will be paid through the federal Section 8 program.

Ethel Crystian-Nunley, deputy director of Strength Inc., said she had her hands full working on the building from financing to construction meetings and now with renting the units.

“I’m glad it’s over,” she said. “It’s finished and it looks beautiful.”

(Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699. )

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633