Parishes aid homeless families being "the hands of Christ to others"

Father Robert Cedolia remembers the day he knocked on the window of a car that had been parked outside his church. He looked into the face of a single mother, scared and alone with her two small children.

“We’ve lost our home and are living out of this car,” she said, breaking down in tears. “I picked your parking lot because I knew it was safe.”

Father Cedolia got them some help, but knew he had to do more.

That emotional encounter six years ago led St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon, now part of St. Paul of the Cross Parish, to partner with Family Promise. The nonprofit organization engages faith communities across the country to help homeless families find decent housing.

Today, hundreds of volunteers at nine Catholic parishes in the region join hands with 28 congregations from other faith traditions to host small groups of homeless families for one week at a time. They provide shelter, hot meals and hospitality, helping them get back on their feet.

“Many of these families are fragile,” said St. Anne organizer Miriam Manion. “Parents have lost jobs and been evicted from their homes. About half are mothers with younger children.”

More than 35 percent of the U.S. homeless population is made up of families with children, most of whom are under 5 years old, according to the federal government. About 16,000 people in Pennsylvania are homeless.

“Families are with us an average of 42 days, and 78 percent are able to find safe, affordable housing,” said Laura Karl Vincenti, executive director of Family Promise of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1995. “We help them gain and maintain their independence.

“Sometimes they’ve gone through a job loss, divorce or have irresponsible landlords,” she said. “One family didn’t have hot water for an entire winter.”

After spending the night on church property — at St. Anne the families stay in a former convent — the next morning volunteers take them to Family Promise’s day center in Crafton. Parents work with a case manager to find housing, explore job opportunities, get referrals to resources and register their kids for school.

In the late afternoon, they drive the families back to the churches.

Volunteers sometimes bring their children to play with the kids, and at St. Patrick Parish in Canonsburg, two retired educators often tutor them, according to Deacon Joe Cerenzia. He and wife Lisa are co-coordinators of their parish program, using a renovated home known as “Mary’s House.” Immaculate Conception Parish in Washington helps with volunteers.

“Our Ladies of Charity donate material for the families to make their own blankets,” Lisa Cerenzia said. “Parishioners also have been generous, contributing gift cards and offering other support.”

“The parents are trying hard to get their lives back in order,” Deacon Cerenzia said. “Some are inquisitive about the Catholic faith, and our parish clergy make time to share a meal or just visit with them.”

St. Benedict the Abbot Parish in Peters Township has been involved with Family Promise for nearly two decades, according to co-coordinator Blaise Hollot. St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Finleyville provides support.

“We try to be the hands of Christ to others,” Hollot said. “I’m always reminded of Matthew 25, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.’”

Families in need of shelter should contact Allegheny Link at 866-730-2368 for a referral. Parishes and volunteers are needed. Inquire at Family Promise by calling 412-921-2916.