Their title is “support specialist,” but it might be more accurate to describe Cassie Nuzzo and Marquia Watson as social workers.
The two colleagues maintain offices in five Allegheny County Housing Authority high-rise apartment buildings. Watson provides support at General Braddock Towers in Braddock and Commerce Plaza in Wilmerding. Nuzzo handles Brackenridge Hall in Brackenridge, and Rachel Carson Hall and Golden Towers in Tarentum. Occasionally, she serves as an asset at the small Philip Burtner Hall nearby.
Pittsburgh Mercy has a contract with the county to provide the support specialists to deal with issues that might arise among tenants in the buildings, including crisis intervention, domestic violence, homelessness, hoarding, mental health, and a high volume of drug/alcohol use.
“What they are doing is major league social service,” says Mike Luxemburger, Intervention Program administrator, who supervises the program. “They are social workers through and through. Not only do they serve the people in the building, but the whole community that comes into the building.”
Neither colleague started out doing “social work.”
“It just kind of happened,” says Watson, who majored in early childhood education and started her career in childcare. She worked for a time at Pittsburgh Mercy’s former Adult Day Program in Baldwin, left to do case management, and then returned to Pittsburgh Mercy for this job.
Nuzzo, a criminology major, started with Pittsburgh Mercy’s jail program,
and moved to work in mental health for children and adults, homeless services, and intellectual disabilities before moving into the support specialist position.
In their assigned buildings, the colleagues each have 200-plus apartments where singles, couples, and families live, Luxemburger says.
“We go to the same building on a regularly scheduled day, but no day is the same,” Watson says.
“Every single situation is different,” she says. “Every person is different.”
Sometimes the tenants call Nuzzo and Watson asking for their help. Other times, the tenants or the colleagues themselves see police or an ambulance arrive at the building, so the support specialists spring into action. During the first week of March, Nuzzo said paramedics had been at the building every day
Transportation is always an issue for the tenants. Wilmerding, the building located furthest east, lacks good public transportation, while General Braddock Towers is served by three to four buses. The two Allegheny Valley sites are the furthest out on the bus line to Pittsburgh.
The buildings used to be restricted to low-income
senior citizens, but now tenants range in age from their 20s into the later years. When people sign up for the subsidized housing through the county, they don’t know in which community they might land. The personalities of the buildings are different, from people not really knowing the Wilmerding area to the “very community-oriented” General Braddock Towers.
Their offices become small resource centers for items ranging from naloxone (Narcan), condoms, lubrication, dental dams, and medical supplies to clothes, diapers, granola bars, and dog food. Allegheny County Health Department and other community organizations provide the items.
“I try to work from a place of harm-reduction,” Watson says.
Pre-pandemic, the support specialists provided educational programs for tenants covering life, rental, and health insurance; tobacco cessation; and hepatitis C information. Fire and police departments offered safety programs. A nurse demonstrated healthy cooking, Americorps members taught knitting, volunteers led craft sessions, and a colleague from a state representative’s office came to help with rent rebates.
“COVID changed all that,” Nuzzo says, noting that the community rooms are still not open for programming. “We can plant seeds. We can offer assistance. We have to be respectful that this is where they live. This may be public housing, but it’s where people live.”
Watson says that if she didn’t work at the high-rises, she’d accuse someone of making up what happens there. She says police are sometimes frustrated with the number of calls they receive from the sites, but she points out that with 12 floors with 15 apartments each, it is akin to patrolling 12 city blocks.
“It is exhausting some days,” Nuzzo says. “It makes me feel good when I’m empowering someone to help themselves.”
“When you get those five minutes, you pay for it,” Watson agrees. “Those ah-ha moments—things can be different. Things can be better.”
And it’s not just the residents that Watson and Nuzzo assist. Sometimes, a sick family member needs a place to stay. Friends and family come and stay. Some tenants watch their grandchildren. They all benefit from the services.
Despite the issues that arise, Nuzzo notes the buildings have “good people just navigating through all they see.” Because there are many people in a small area, the tenants look out for each other.
Luxemburger said there is no security at the buildings, which causes both colleagues worry when they leave for the day.
“They are truly concerned for everybody,” Luxemburger says. “They so care.”