Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Anti-Poverty Program Succeeding, Report Finds Achievements Seen Even as Fundraising Doesn't Meet Needs

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Anti-Poverty Program Succeeding, Report Finds Achievements Seen Even as Fundraising Doesn't Meet Needs

Article excerpt

Four years after Pittsburgh's first Circles chapter formed in East Liberty, Circles of Greater Pittsburgh has helped participants nearly triple their assets and shed more than $5,000 of debt on average, according to a 2017 evaluation of four local chapters.

It also has helped several buy first homes and start businesses.

It has hit these marks despite a rocky period in which chapters have outgrown capacity and allies have been in short supply.

Circles is an anti-poverty model that teams people of means with people who lack means. The have-nots are the leaders and their mentors are allies. That wording puts the poor in charge of their own progress. Allies bring to the mix their skills and social and economic connections - knowing someone who has an in, say, or someone who is hiring - and a commitment to listen and validate.

But inadequate fundraising is "the biggest threat to Circles groups nationally," according to the evaluation conducted by Gordon Hannah, a founder of the Sharpsburg chapter.

The report indicated Greater Pittsburgh is struggling to support all its chapters. Besides East Liberty and Sharpsburg, they are in Homewood and Pitcairn.

At this week's three-day international Circles conference at Eastminster Presbyterian in East Liberty, one breakout session focused on how to pitch Circles to the wider community to educate and raise money.

"If they don't have a lot of resources, they tend to be understaffed, so all the effort goes into just running it," Mr. Hannah said. "The aspects of community outreach tend to get short shrift. I hope in time more energy goes into that."

Typically, 80 percent of funding in Circles nationwide comes from foundations, the report says.

The Heinz Endowments is a major funder in this region, supporting multiple chapters, including in Westmoreland County, since 2013 at more than $1.4 million.

"A fourth grant will go before our board in May," said John Ellis, a spokesman for the endowments. "We're very pleased with the work Circles has been doing."

Desi-Rai LaPrade joined Circles East Liberty in 2015. She lived in public housing at East Liberty Gardens before it was demolished. She since has been renting in the Hill District but wanted to own a home for herself and her 11-year-old son.

Open Hand Ministry is renovating a home in Garfield that she has been preapproved to buy. Open Hand organizes skilled volunteers to refurbish homes so mortgages are lower for people climbing out of poverty.

In Circles, Ms. LaPrade said, "I have been able to pay down my debts and work on my spending habits. I've gained a lot of contacts, people you can reach out to for advice, such as filing taxes and job connections. My ally helped me with my budget and my resume."

She was unemployed when she joined Circles. She now works for Gateway Health Plan as an appeals analyst for Medicare claims. …

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