After couch surfing and bouncing between apartments, Stephanie Brock and Laura Jordan did what the county government advises people to do when facing homelessness: contact Allegheny Link, a one-stop shop for shelters and affordable housing needs.

Brock, 36, originally from Washington County, moved to McKeesport in 2012 to be with Jordan, her “better half.” The two lived on the fringes in McKeesport, until they called “the Link,” which refers people in need to any of the many nonprofit housing and support organizations operating in Allegheny County.

Allegheny Link first referred Brock and Jordan to the women’s shelter Bethlehem Haven in Uptown Pittsburgh. Their stay was brief and tense; some of the women staying at the shelter were uncomfortable with Brock and Jordan being trans, the two said.

In 2020, Allegheny Link referred the pair to Chartiers Center, a nonprofit service coordinator that pays most of its clients’ rents for apartments usually owned by private landlords. In 2020 the organization set the two up in an apartment in North Braddock.

“We were desperate to get out of North Braddock,” Brock said, explaining that they felt unsafe in that apartment.

On Sept. 1, 2021, the two left North Braddock and began leasing a house in McKees Rocks owned by private landlords Anthony and Vincent Incorvati.

“It was not up to living standards when we moved in,” Brock said. “I did work to make it look better. I changed all the outlets and wiring and the water pipes myself.”

This year, the two found themselves facing potential homelessness again.

Stephanie Brock, left, and her partner, Laura Jordan, in Brock’s rental house she was placed in through programming from Chartiers Center on Feb. 5, in McKees Rocks. Jordan takes the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from her apartment in Monaca to visit Brock since Jordan’s housing doesn’t allow her to have guests stay the night. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Brock said that soon after they moved in, they asked the borough to send an inspector to assess the apartment due to concerns about the sagging floor under the hot water tank.

Eventually, the deteriorating condition of the house led to a series of county and borough enforcement actions, which did not result in quick fixes, but instead in findings that the place was “unfit for human occupancy.”

Situated on the corner of a street, the small house opens into the living room with the bathroom nearby on the first floor. The couple’s bedroom is off to the side and narrow stairs lead downstairs to a kitchen and another room. The base of the stairs are darkened with what Brock said is mold. In the kitchen side room containing the hot water tank, Brock reinforced the sagging floor with wood beams.

Brock and Jordan’s stay in McKees Rocks shows both the extent the county will go to house people, and the limits on its power to ensure they remain decently housed.

“We’re talking about high vulnerability, high risk, if you will, people, we’re able to offer this intensive service to, and it’s about 15%” of the county’s known homeless and sheltered population, said Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [ACDHS]. Programs like Chartiers Center are “good news — we've been able to prioritize high-vulnerability people for permanent and rapid supportive housing.”

Brock said that the landlord made a few surface improvements but didn’t address blown fuses, issues with the heater, leaky water pipes, a broken stove and a broken fridge — so she went about repairing some of those problems herself.

“We were hoping that everything would be fixed appropriately, but all they did was throw Band-Aids on all these problems,” Brock said. The couple felt they had little leverage and few options.

From homelessness to Hestia

Chartiers Center runs programs designed to help people who are suffering from “chronic” homelessness transition to more stable, permanent housing with the eventual goal of self-reliance. Each program focuses on certain obstacles people might be facing — from disabling conditions like HIV to mental health challenges and disabilities — in settling into stable housing.

“Our goal is to decrease the number of people experiencing homelessness, and through rental assistance and case management, we hopefully are decreasing homelessness,” said Felicia Nolan, who oversees the Hestia Program and others as the Chartiers Center’s director of homeless services.

Both Brock and Jordan participated in the Chartiers Center’s Hestia Program, named after the Greek goddess of domestic life. Devoted to mental health treatment, the program assists 101 households in the county, placing most in scattered sites owned by private landlords. To become enrolled in the program participants must receive a mental health diagnosis, but treatment for said diagnosis is not required, according to Nolan.

Nolan said that the goal of the program is to provide ongoing rental assistance to clients while helping them achieve their goals toward self-sufficiency.

She said that they work directly with their client on selecting an apartment that suits their needs.

“It's a very collaborative process,” Nolan said. “We’re working to find affordable units and somewhere where the client wants to live. So it’s a mixture of client preferences and cost of units, availability of units and finding landlords that will work with us.” 

When a client finds an apartment they want, Chartiers Center inspects the place using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] inspection standards, Nolan said.

They will not sign a lease if an apartment does not pass an inspection. And if the place does pass an inspection, Nolan said, there is a follow up inspection every three months “or more [often] if needed.”

Because of this work, ACDHS considers the Hestia Program to be one of the best and most effective in the county, which received $23 million from HUD for such rapid rehousing programs last year, according to Dalton.

Dalton said that “choice is really important here, maybe to a fault. We want our providers to find you the best place.”

Brock, though, said that the apartment’s conditions were poor since they first moved in and though she has tried to repair things, the conditions have continued to deteriorate. The apartment’s private landlord has a maintenance worker but Brock said she felt uncomfortable letting him in the house.

Stephanie Brock walks upstairs above the darkened walls of the home she rents in McKees Rocks on Feb. 5. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

In September, Jordan decided to leave the program and found a place elsewhere. Brock continues to live in the McKees Rocks apartment and participate in Hestia.

Chartiers Center declined to comment on Jordan's and Brock’s case, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act [HIPAA], which governs release of protected health information.

Nolan said she could only talk about Brock and Jordan’s case if the two signed a release form waiving their privacy under the HIPAA law, but a media relations consultant then nixed a scheduled interview between the nonprofit and Rtvsrece.

Health code violations and condemnation

Brock and Jordan said they started calling the Allegheny County Health Department about conditions in the house in 2022.

The Health Department on Nov. 14 found the couple's federally-funded unit to be in violation of multiple sections of Article VI, the county’s Houses and Community Environment regulation.

The seven violations included:

  • Exterior doors were not weathertight due to half inch gaps.
  • A water line or valve in the wall leaked.
  • Electric issues included no ground fault circuit interrupters in the bathroom.
  • Gutters and fascia were missing in the rear of the building.

Landlord Vincent Incorvati couldn’t be reached by phone or text.

The Health Department required fixes by Dec. 19, and when that deadline lapsed issued a further notice threatening a fine of up to $10,000 if the violations weren’t addressed by Feb. 9.

It’s unclear whether any such fine would result in payment. Rtvsrece and WESA reported in 2021 that the county's Health Department collects just one in five fines it levies for violations of its, known as Article VI. Proposed fixes to Article VI have been in a holding pattern before the Board of Health for more than nine months

Brock said that Chartiers Center advised them to let the maintenance worker in the house. Brock refused.

Nolan said that “If a client raises an issue we'll go back out and communicate with landlords to get repairs completed.”

On Jan. 23, Brock and Jordan received a notice from the borough that the house they live in would be condemned on Feb. 20, at which point they would be prohibited from entering the property.

According to the citation, the McKees Rocks inspector found their apartment to be:

  • Unfit for human occupancy due to “lack of water and functioning sanitary systems”
  • In a condition likely to cause sickness or disease
  • A rodent harborage.

“I felt like my life was over,” Brock said. “I should take the bridge because everything I own will be gone.”

Stay or go?

Nolan noted that Chartiers Center case workers meet with their clients at least once a month, if not more, to help maintain progress and keep track of any mental health or housing problems.

“If there's a deficiency, we notify the landlord,” Nolan said. “We give them 30 days. … If they don't do that repair we work on communicating with the client to relocate.”

Nolan said that sometimes clients don’t want to move out of their apartment and in those cases they’ll try to facilitate repairs. She said that in the case that issues aren’t addressed or repaired, they will help their clients relocate to another apartment. “It's a lot of communicating with our client to help them understand the reasons behind it,” Nolan said.

Jordan and Brock said their apartment was inspected by the nonprofit in January, but since then they haven’t heard back on getting the apartment fixed nor have they heard about arrangements to find a new apartment.

McKees Rocks inspectors reversed the condemnation on Feb. 13, after they reinspected the house and saw that rotted flooring beneath the water tank had been mitigated, according to Mayor David Flick. Brock said she made the repairs herself but they wouldn’t last long.

Any sense of relief quickly went out the window.

On Feb. 15, Brock said the water tank stopped working and she started getting dizzy. Her carbon monoxide alarm went off so she opened all her windows and doors for ventilation. She turned off the gas to the hot water tank and has since left the gas off.

Her message to the human services providers is simple: “I want moved to a safe, HUD-approved place.”

Eric Jankiewicz is Rtvsrece’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

This story was fact-checked by Jamie Wiggan.

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Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for Rtvsrece. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...