When Lisa Lakenan started managing Auberle's new Family Emergency Shelter a year ago, she knew she had some challenges ahead. Though equipped with years of experience working in transitional housing, this would be Lisa’s first foray into shelter services. Eight months in, and she has more than risen to the challenge.
Since the shelter opened in January, Lisa and her team have helped 24 families obtain permanent housing. Currently, the shelter has the best shelter-to-housing rate in Allegheny County. That’s due to the hard work and diligence of Lisa and her team, as well as Auberle’s willingness to take on such an important community need.
“We’re trying to keep the family together as a whole unit. We want to house everyone.”
- Lisa Lakenan, Program Manager, Auberle Family Emergency Shelter
Part of what makes the new shelter unique is that it accepts the entire family, including men.
“Most men aren’t allowed in housing programs,” Lisa said. “So we wanted to make sure that we included every person in the family. We’re trying to keep the family together as a whole unit instead of separating the family. Some places also put age limits for children. They won’t take children over the age of 14. Some it’s even as young as 12. We want to include everyone. We want to house everyone. We’ve had men in shelter already. We had a single dad and his daughter. We don’t say no. Everybody’s welcome.”
In Allegheny County, there is a two-year waiting list to obtain public housing. For larger families, the wait can be even longer.
“The bigger families are hard to house, and it can be very frustrating and overwhelming for our families,” Lisa said. “We are helping families who are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.”
In order to help youth and families deal with trauma, Auberle has embraced the Sanctuary Model, a theory-based, trauma-informed, and evidence-supported practice that challenges staff to change its approach with clients from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what has happened to you?” For shelter staff, providing sanctuary means being ready for almost anything, even a newborn infant.
“We had a mom who was very pregnant when she entered the shelter,” Lisa said. “So it was going to be our first baby born in the shelter. So everybody was excited, and some were scared. It’s a little scary when you’re that pregnant and you’re in a situation of homelessness. She came back from the hospital and she didn’t have too much at all for the baby. So we were just gathering all the donations that we possibly could for her. She’s in her forever home now.”
Another success story to come out of the shelter involved a man, woman and their four children. The family was couch surfing from one family member’s house to another. The children were not attending school regularly, and the mother was in danger of being fined for truancy. While living at the shelter, both adults obtained employment, and they are all now in permanent housing.
To make these successes happen, the shelter relies on many valuable community partnerships. One of the shelter’s most instrumental partners is the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) which offers case management to all families in the shelter. The DHS case manager visits the shelter a couple times a week to coordinate clients’ applications to rental offices and provide bus passes to clients so they can look for housing. According to Lisa, the partnership with DHS is truly a team effort.
“We coordinate services and all the referrals as a team. We invite all agencies to the shelter to lessen the burden of travel for our families since all of our families have limited or no income. We help our families obtain and increase their income.”
The shelter also works with the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF). The HCEF donates backpacks and school supplies to children at the shelter and recently awarded the shelter a grant to start a garden and teach clients how to grow their own fresh produce.
“The garden is a resource to help alleviate some of that income burden,” Lisa said.
Another community partner that has provided integral support is Quest Diagnostics.
“Quest has been wonderful to us”, Lisa said. “They have donated diapers, wipes, pack ‘n plays. In shelter, we have a lot of families coming in and they have nothing or they just have clothes in a garbage bag. So we’ve been able to help them be comfortable here and supply their needs so they can take a shower or have somewhere safe where their babies can sleep while they’re here. We provide them with a pack ‘n play, and if they need one, they take it when they leave.”
Programs like the Family Emergency Shelter do not operate in a vacuum. In just eight months, many individuals, companies and organizations have reached out to help the shelter in any way they could. Through these partnerships, the shelter has created relationships that focus on reaching the best possible outcome for each client.
Lisa recounted one such client, a senior veteran who, along with his wife and their 18 year old son, had been living in an abandoned house. Allegheny Link, a county program that helps individuals find stable housing, referred the vet and his family to the Veterans Leadership Program who were able to help the family obtain permanent housing.
It’s likely that not every family the shelter serves will achieve immediate success in their search for housing. However, local government has identified homelessness as a critical need, and Auberle has stepped up to address that need by not only offering families a stable environment but empowering them with the tools to move forward.
For more information on Auberle’s Housing programs, contact Lisa Lakenan at 412-469-3686 or LisaL@auberle.org.