Sunshine illuminates Colleen McKerley as she stands in Light of Life Rescue Mission’s new North Side facility, which opens for meal ministry Feb. 3.
As development manager for the organization, she has watched 234 Voeghtly Street morph from a vacant lot in the shadow of the Veterans Bridge to a spacious, three-story facility that is inviting.
“We want people to have hope when they walk in here,” she says. “We want them to see that they are worthy. Building relationships is the biggest thing we do.”
Light of Life spent 25 years searching for a location before purchasing the land from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA).
The 23,000-square-foot homeless shelter has three floors of short-term living space for men, women and children. There, they can find beds, daily meals and programming to help them get permanent housing, employment and other community resources.
The building, conceptualized by Integrity Design, built by Sota Construction Services and decorated by DesignGroup is tucked away along the Allegheny River between interstates 279 and 579, a place where the homeless already congregate. An outreach team makes the rounds every day, making connections and informing people about the new facility and what it has to offer. A large, lighted cross on the side of the structure will guide them.
The kitchen, which is four times larger than the current one on nearby E. North Avenue, has the capacity to feed 80 people at a time. After finishing their meals, guests can continue to relax in the dining room or find peace in the chapel. Richbarn Roasters provides the coffee, which will percolate around the clock.
Unlike the mission’s cramped headquarters on E. North Avenue — a space the organization has occupied since the late-1970s, and will eventually sell after the relocation — the new site boasts soothing paint schemes and open layouts.
The men’s floor has a restroom with showers, a laundry room, community room, deck, four three-person rooms and a dorm-style space with 20 beds, each with their own light and phone charging station. The beds will be partitioned for privacy and social distancing. Although the building is surrounded by roadways, the insulation keeps traffic noise out. The facility also has a hospital-grade ventilation system.
Upon arrival, the guests can store their belongings in lockers located outside on a heated patio or drop off their belongings in the decontamination room, which can be heated to above 160 degrees, killing any bed bugs hitching a ride on clothing or bedding.
There is a women’s emergency shelter and an 18-person dorm separate from the men’s dwelling. The area includes a children’s play area, community room, prayer room, restroom, six three-person bedrooms and a deck. A resident assistant will be on-site, along with a full-time registered nurse.
The top floor of the building will be used for rooftop barbeques, vegetable gardens and storage.
Another building at 635 Ridge Avenue is being renovated to accommodate Light of Life’s long-term programs, which include the Men’s Life Recovery Program and the Women & Children’s Program. It will include a kitchen and administrative offices.
Light of Life is in the middle of a $22 million fundraising campaign with about $14 million raised so far.
The mission also has gotten creative with their fundraising. Rescue Dogs, a food truck serving gourmet hot dogs and fries, has been making the rounds the past few months and will hit the road again this spring. Greg Heibert, Light of Life’s senior operations manager, says in addition to feeding people — free hot dogs are given to the homeless — Rescue Dogs is a vehicle to tell folks throughout the region about the work the organization has been doing since 1952. It also employs shelter residents.
Helping people find jobs a big part of Light of Life’s mission. John Mimidis, who heads the custodial department, is reinstating a 10-week program at the new site to train several men at a time in professional cleaning techniques with a focus on Christian hospitality. When winter ends, the program will be expanded to include groundskeeping work. After receiving their certificate of completion, participants will be able to seek employment as janitors and landscapers.
In 2019, Light of Life provided 295,176 meals, 11,216 emergency shelter nights, 23,049 hours of education, 1,030 hours of children’s programming and 3,268 classes with the help of more than 3,000 volunteers.
Volunteers, who must fill out an online application and attend a virtual orientation, are always needed to prep and serve food and to offer a listening ear.
Kathy Testoni, a volunteer who lives on Washington’s Landing less than two miles north, has been donating her time to the cause for more than 20 years. She’s excited for what the future holds.
“The new building represents a positive transition for all with large windows and large rooms and painted walls that represent tranquility. There are safe areas where guests can enjoy the outside. The entire facility represents home and will be a positive stepping stone toward the future.”