“I remember standing on the corner watching my house burn in my ‘New Kids on the Block’ nightie.”
That memory is one of Crystal Brown’s earliest and most formative ones, as a 5-year-old living in Ohio, forced to face a hate crime sparked by her parents’ interracial marriage.
“We were very fortunate that we were able to stay with family until my parents were able to find another home,” Brown recalled. “Actually, a person from the community let us stay with them since all of our family was in Pennsylvania.”
Thus, Brown understood from a young age that having a support system is important to maintaining stability.
“If it would not have been for family and those kind neighbors, we would have been homeless,” she said. “That is why I believe in the work we do at BHA.”
BHA stands for Brethren Housing Association, a nonprofit, interdenominational organization that owns more than 10 properties in South Allison Hill, serving about 85 adults and children a year. Their red-doored headquarters is situated in the shadow of the Capitol, on Hummel Street, across from the Mulberry Street Bridge.
Named executive director in 2011, Brown helps Harrisburg residents obtain housing and the skills they need to keep that housing. BHA is probably best known for its “Transitions” program, in which women with children who are homeless are given transitional housing. Families live in BHA-owned housing, obtaining their own apartment without being forced to share common spaces. BHA also works to secure permanent housing for people with disabilities and offers an aftercare program for families once served by their programs.
Brown said she and her staff give clients both “encouragement and accountability.” Many came to BHA from an emergency shelter or were couch-surfing, she explained, “doubling up” with another family temporarily.
The reasons for homelessness vary, she said.
“Every family is different, but there is usually the need to supplement their income,” she said.
Most are in need of a job, an education, and, often, basic money management skills.
“They need skills to keep their apartment neat, pay their bills on time, live successfully with their neighbors,” she said.
Love and Support
A 2004 graduate of Susquehanna Township High School, Brown began volunteering at the Interfaith Shelter, which operates under the auspices of Catholic Charities in Lower Paxton Township, while earning a degree in social work from West Chester University. The Shelter offered her a job soon after, and she went on to earn a master’s degree from Temple-Harrisburg.
The desire to serve families in need is in her genes. Her father, the Rev. Wayne Baxter, served a congregation in Edgemont, and her grandfather also was a minister.
Brown said that, unlike the Interfaith Shelter, where families usually stay only 30 days, her goal is about permanence, opportunity and access. Families can stay as long as two years. With more time, she can better help clients acquire the skills they need and connect them with more resources for long-term stability.
“I feel like housing is a right,” she said. “People deserve to have a roof over their head.”
That sentiment is reflected in many of the plaques bearing motivational quotes in her busy first-floor office, which straddles a large open meeting room where clients gather. One of them reads: “You have to be taught to be second class. You’re not born that way.”
She notes that homelessness is part of a larger problem. Low-cost housing leads to housing segregation, which leads to educational segregation—which “leads to a perfect storm, and our families live with the aftermath,” she said. She pointed out that rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dauphin County costs about $886.
“I can’t change federal policies, but I can give love and support and encouragement,” she said.
Brown sees a lack of affordable housing as a serious problem in every American city, but especially Harrisburg.
So many restrictions are often imposed upon prospective tenants, such as criminal background checks and credit checks. The homeless with criminal records often can’t get housing, which leads to not just homelessness, but hopelessness. Many have paid their debt to society, but cannot break out of homelessness because of their past.
“People make mistakes,” Brown said matter-of-factly.
Although memories of her childhood house fire remain, other, more recent memories lift her spirits. She recalls a single mother, frazzled after dealing with a boisterous 3-year-old all day, with no one around to give her a break. Brown came home with the mom and calmed the child by singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” That child is now 6 and doing well in school.
“I got to be that tag out” for that mom, Brown said.
The community is a vital partner in BHA’s efforts. One of their most popular programs is “Adopt an Apartment.” Caring donors can buy pots, pans, lamps and more for a family moving into a new apartment. She said UPMC Pinnacle and its employees are frequent sponsors.
She is often asked if she ever feels afraid, working where she does. She replies that she is no more scared than she would be in a parking lot at Wal-Mart or camping.
And, while she may have little experience camping or living in a rustic environment, she clearly knows what she is doing in an urban setting.
“I have a healthy level of fear,” she said.
One of Brown’s mentors is Lisa Peck, program director at Interfaith Shelter. Peck returns the respect.
“Crystal is very open, very honest, and she very much believes in her work,” Peck said.
Peck and Brown often brainstorm about how they can make things better for others.
“She is very, very dynamic,” Peck said. “She does everything with enthusiasm and nothing is too small to take on. She is always up to challenges and will stop at nothing to help the less fortunate.”
When families arrive, Brown is “always warm and welcoming,” Peck said.
“I really enjoy working with the women,” Brown said. “Every day, I learn and grow. It continues to humble me. It is a constant reminder to not pass judgement.”
Still, amidst the triumphs are tragedies. One of BHA’s most ardent supporters, Ray Diener, was brutally murdered several years ago, and one of the rehabbed houses on Hummel Street was named in his honor.
That experience forces a reflection on another plaque on her wall: “Pray about everything. Worry about nothing.”
“We are here to serve—to love God and love our neighbor,” Brown said.
One of Brown’s greatest sources of pride is that they are a “trauma-informed organization.”
Many homeless people are victims of physical and sexual abuse, she explained, and that trauma hinders their growth and stability. Homelessness then becomes an additional trauma. BHA partners with Pressley Ridge to offer counseling.
“Instead of asking, ‘Why did you spend that $100 on that?’ we try to understand their story and put it in context,” she said.
BHA also works with Dauphin County’s Office of Children and Youth, since many of the children in the child welfare system are there due to homelessness.
In the mid-winter cold, Brown gave a short tour of snow-topped Hummel Street. The townhouses across the street from her office are new construction. BHA demolished old buildings and built new with the help of UPMC Pinnacle. A playground, pavilion and garden are also part of the tidy block. A state grant helped with streetscaping.
“There is such transformation on this block,” she said.
The growth in their properties is among the accomplishments she is most proud of.
She lists many other housing construction and renovation projects going up around her, including 50 affordable housing units slated for 13th and Mulberry and Crescent and Mulberry, in conjunction with the Harrisburg Housing Authority.
Her end goal is more housing, less hate.
“We just need to be nice to each other and share in our abundance,” she said.
The mean-spiritedness she witnesses is rooted in fear, she believes. People are afraid that, if someone else gets an opportunity, it subtracts opportunity from them.
But she knows it is not a zero-sum game.
She pointed to her favorite quote on her wall, uttered by Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” And so she builds.
Brethren Housing Association is located at 219 Hummel St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-233-6016 or visit www.bha-pa.org.