Tribune-Review – Eleanor Kunesky showed off her cozy, plaid winter coat and new-to-her jeans she recently selected from South Hills Interfaith Movement’s clothing center.
“It’s comfy and warm,” said Kunesky, 58, of South Park, who is on worker’s disability and relies on free food and clothing just to get by.
“And, yes, it’s free,” Kunesky said, as she walked into the food pantry at the Bethel Park-based nonprofit last week to show off her favorite foods: eggs, cheese, bread and sweets — which Kunesky, a diabetic, admits she shouldn’t have but sometimes gets as a treat.
Poverty is growing in the suburban South Hills neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, an area abounding with well-kept homes framed by crisp landscaping, said the Rev. Kris McInnes, chairman of the interfaith group’s board of directors.
In the South Hills, 20 percent of families make less than $35,000 a year, according to the nonprofit, and the number of children eligible for free or reduced lunches in schools has increased every year since 2010.
That prompted the nonprofit to make changes to better suit the needs of the area.
Last week, the group announced a name change from its 50-year staple of South Hills Interfaith Ministries to South Hills Interfaith Movement. That was coupled with a drive for more community assistance and new plans unveiled to help residents.
“We’ve spent enough time seeing how things are actually getting worse in our neighborhoods,” McInnes said. “The reality of suburban poverty is very tricky.”
Poverty in the South Hills affects the elderly, a large refugee population who resettled to the area and those living next door, McInnes said.
“They aren’t just coming as a safety net anymore, but as a way of life,” he said of people using SHIM’s services.
In the last year, 4,000 people in the South Hills sought assistance from SHIM. Of them, 1,700 people utilized the nonprofit group’s two food pantries — one at its Bethel Park base and the other in the Whitehall Place housing complex.
SHIM operates on a budget of $1.4 million per year, much of which comes from fundraising, community donations and government support, said executive director Jim Guffey. He said he hopes to increase the budget to $3.2 million in the coming years with added programing and assistance for residents.
SHIM plans to add a third food pantry, opening in March at the Baldwin United Presbyterian Church, along with a new garden site at the Whitehall Presbyterian Church, courtesy of a grant from Grow Pittsburgh and Giving2 Grow, to benefit refugee families in the area.
SHIM’s food pantries serve families in the Baldwin-Whitehall, Bethel Park, Keystone Oaks, Mt. Lebanon, South Park and Upper St. Clair school districts.
“We are always looking for new and innovative ways to do things,” McInnes said.
SHIM conducted a feasibility study, helping leaders identify the needs of the area and how better to serve those in the South Hills, Guffey said.
“It all begins and starts and ends with the help of the community,” Guffey said.
Based on numbers from its feasibility study, SHIM leaders identified 9,000 people in the South Hills struggling financially.
“There are needs, but they tend to be hidden in the shoulders,” said Mary Phan-Gruber, executive director of the Jefferson Regional Foundation. The interfaith group is a grantee of the foundation. “Sometimes people who need help not only have trouble making ends meet, but also finding resources.”
Many times, Phan-Gruber said, people in the South Hills area work “low-wage jobs” and are not making enough to support their families.
In Whitehall, where a large population of refugees dates to the 1990s, new U.S. residents are “trying to build a better life,” yet struggling to get by, Phan-Gruber said.
The latest census count showed 13 percent of Whitehall’s nearly 14,000 residents speak a language other than English at home. The latest influx has resettled from Bhutan and Nepal.
In the Whitehall Place housing complex, where a large number of refugees live, SHIM offers numerous programs, including the food pantry and tutoring for youths.
Indira Pyakurel, 31, a Bhutanese native who lived in a Nepali refugee camp for 18 years before resettling to the United States in 2009, said she struggled when moving to a new country.
Pyakurel, of Whitehall, moved with her husband from Ohio to the South Hills because of the jobs available in the Pittsburgh area, she said. She worked at a Giant Eagle in Cranberry for two years before having children.
While pregnant, Pyakurel said, she didn’t know how to fill out insurance forms or about the hospitals in the area. She sought assistance from SHIM.
“It really helped,” she said.