When the call came to share, Aaron Bunting leapt to the podium. After an adult life fueled by cocaine and then almost ended in an opioid overdose, he was still fired up from an entirely different kind of weekend, which he called “the most fun in my life.”

He spent it at a Narcotics Anonymous convention in Erie. On this November morning, he was back at First Step Recovery Homes in McKeesport, where he spent most of the prior two months. “I want to get my life together for the first time in my life and have my family be proud of me,” he said.

Seven other First Step residents sat at a table in the wood-paneled clinical office, with its space heater, popcorn maker and an old bank vault door. “This is a whole new experience for me,” said Bunting. “These people legit are like my family.”

Aaron Bunting, a resident of First Step Recovery Homes in McKeesport, talks to the group on Nov. 5, 2021. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

His First Step family is facing a crisis.

The recovery organization is struggling to pay the bills, to make payroll and to salvage its relationship with city government. First Step CEO Keith Giles believes that the city – armed with $24.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] funding – should help to stabilize the financially struggling program.

First Step’s request for funding, though, has run smack into one of the city’s highest priorities: the demolition of derelict buildings to make way for new development. McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said he can’t help First Step because the organization owes the city reimbursement for costs incurred demolishing a building it owned.

“I am fiscally responsible for the tax dollars in the City of McKeesport,” Cherepko told Giles in the first of two testy encounters before city council. “I am not going to take our tax money,” he continued, “… to fulfill the obligations that you failed to meet.”

In effect, city redevelopment and individual recovery – which would ideally reinforce each other – are instead colliding.

Pinched by the pandemic

An overdue $69 electricity bill was Giles’ latest worry. 

On a September morning, he and the half dozen other members of the First Step staff were gathered around a table in the clinical office, which sits in one of four buildings owned or rented by the organization. Two others house the men they serve, and the fourth includes a gym.

First Step often houses men for around a year, and embraces the 12-step recovery program, exercise and dietary improvement, volunteer work, employment and counseling on issues like money management, housing and family reconciliation. It’s a formula Giles and his team have been honing for 30 years, even as epidemics of substance abuse and overdose course through the city around it.

Jerry Stradford, a member of the staff at First Step, talks with a group of residents about the risk of relapse on Nov. 5, 2021. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

On the wall was a plaque featuring a 1997 McKeesport Daily News article headlined “Abusers Take First Steps.” It described Giles’ path from his own recovery to the founding of this organization, including seven years he labored “without vacation or funding.”

Now he has an annual budget that hovers below $500,000 a year, anchored by an Allegheny County Department of Human Services allocation that is $312,000 in fiscal 2021-22. But he also has larger obligations, including the four buildings and seven employees. He said First Step was in arrears by $89,000, and mulled whether a utility would really shut him off over $69.

“Why are we struggling every year to try to meet a budget when other agencies don’t have that problem?” he wondered aloud.

Lately, COVID-19 gets part of the blame.

First Step charges employed residents 30% of their earnings for room and board, capped at $300. If the homes are at their capacity of 23 men, and a reasonable number are working, that’s meaningful revenue. In response to the pandemic, though, Giles gives each man a single room, capping the population at 12, of whom just a few are employed.

The federal government, everyone at the table knew, was dishing out billions of dollars. Maybe there was something First Step could do to get a tiny piece of that.

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Last threads and good standing

Cherepko had a lot to trumpet at the Oct. 6 meeting of McKeesport City Council.

Trulieve Cannabis Corp. was planning to add some 800 jobs at its site along the city’s stretch of the Monongahela River, the mayor said. McKeesport’s demolition plan, furthered by a fresh $644,000 contract to raze buildings on a block near city hall, would add more developable sites to the mill town.

Plus the ARPA funding was coming. “It’s an incredible opportunity to help some of those in need,” he told council.

The public comment portion of the meeting followed, and Giles stepped to the podium. His starker message: The men housed by First Step might otherwise be homeless.

“I don’t understand why we can’t get any assistance helping this population in McKeesport,” he told council. “We are hanging on by our last thread, and I truly believe that this service is necessary in the City of McKeesport.”

Cherepko responded that he couldn’t help because First Step owed the city money. He said he couldn’t distribute public dollars to organizations that weren’t “in good standing.”

Giles didn’t dispute the debt. In 2001, First Step bought a house on Shaw Avenue for $7,000. Giles planned to rehab it into more recovery housing. He never found the funding. Instead the city razed the house last summer, then billed First Step for the costs, which Giles said were around $12,600. (The city did not provide requested documentation of the charge by the time of publication.)

Giles argued that the stakes here were bigger than a demolition debt. “I’m talking about money to help First Step with the homeless, with the drug and alcohol issues, and don’t tell me you don’t think there’s an opioid crisis here in the community.”

“There’s a major one,” said Cherepko.

McKeesport’s main ZIP code, 15132, has seen 153 fatal drug overdoses since 2008, according to OverdoseFreePA, a state-funded project that tracks the epidemic throughout the state. That’s the seventh-highest among some 140 ZIP codes in the county.

“I’m trying to provide a service,” Giles told the mayor and council, “and I just need some assistance.”

San Francisco dreams and food bank realities

Keenon Mikell turned on the lights for First Step’s empty gymnasium, illuminating a boxing ring, heavy bags, training bags, speed bags and exercise machines. On this late October day, the residents were all en route to the convention in Erie.

Approaching the gym, Mikell recounted the workouts that changed his life. They occurred in prison. His record includes state time for drug and gun possession charges in the 1990s, and federal time for a drug charge he drew in West Virginia.

“I had my stint of just being caught up in nonsense,” said Mikell. “And I’ve met a lot of guys [in prison] who had regret, and they’re like, ‘Listen, this ain’t you.’” His workout buddies, he said, urged him to aim higher.

Keenon Mikell, who runs the health and wellness program at First Step Recovery Homes, talks about his path in the gymnasium owned by the nonprofit organization. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Released in 2013, Mikell later took a job at First Step. He leads the health and wellness program while studying for his master’s degree at California University of Pennsylvania.

Until recently, he was also the owner of a building on McKeesport’s Fifth Avenue. He had planned to renovate it into transitional housing that graduates of First Step could live in while receiving social services that would lead to independence.

The building, however, deteriorated. The city declared it a nuisance. In August, the city included it in an eminent domain case in which it sought ownership of 48 blighted properties.

This house on Fifth Avenue in McKeesport, once owned by Keenon Mikell, is now deeded to the McKeesport City Redevelopment Authority. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Mikell said his only option was to hire a lawyer to fight the city, but he didn’t think he could afford one. The McKeesport City Redevelopment Authority now owns the property.

Though Giles has seen prior expansion plans bulldozed, he still hopes to grow First Step.

He admires San Francisco’s Delancey Street Foundation, a self-help community and job training facility for ex-convicts with substance use histories. “We want to try to replicate it here,” Giles said as he brought out a binder full of materials on the program and laid it on his desk. He’d like to create a resident-run car wash and detailing business, or a landscaping firm.

Keith Giles, CEO and founder of First Step Recovery Homes, pages through a binder in his office in McKeesport. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

That’s a long way off. Just to feed his residents, he relies on generosity from restaurants and charity. “We really could not survive,” he said, “if we were not able to go to the food bank.”

‘If we owned everything’

Cherepko’s annual budget presentation was a month away, and he wanted city council to know what to expect.

“We’re going to continue, without question, McKeesport Rising,” Cherepko told council at its November meeting. McKeesport Rising is the mayor’s three-year-old demolish-then-rebuild plan. Next year’s goal: demolition of 200 to 300 abandoned homes.

A demolition site on Fifth Avenue in McKeesport, where the city is razing hundreds of houses per year as part of its McKeesport Rising initiative. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

He explained that companies have been calling him asking for developable sites ranging from 2 to 10 acres. “That’s a good thing — a very good thing,” he continued. “But it’s a bad thing if we don’t have property. Unfortunately, we don’t own everything. If we owned everything, you wouldn’t see a lot of these buildings empty.”

Besides cleared land, he said, businesses value McKeesport’s civility.

“Businesses don’t want to go into towns where there’s a bunch of infighting. People don’t realize how much damage that does to a community,” he told council. He added that in his town, elected officials “conduct ourselves with integrity and the utmost respect for each other.”

Then the public comment period started, and again Giles took to the podium.

For 13 minutes, he and Cherepko debated an argument they had two weeks earlier, outside of city hall. The two had planned to meet to discuss First Step’s funding needs, but instead argued about a call Giles made to the editor of the Tube City Almanac, an online news outlet covering the Mon Valley. Giles said he called the editor to clear up any misunderstanding regarding the Shaw Avenue property’s demolition, and that when the mayor found out he nixed the meeting.

“My program director and I both felt terribly disrespected and not appreciated,” Giles told the mayor and council.

“I have never disrespected anyone in my life without being disrespected first,” Cherepko answered. He said he tried to walk away from the argument, but Giles kept drawing him back.

“We wish that we had a boatload of money to throw around, but that’s not the way it is,” the mayor added. (The ARPA money, he said at another point in the meeting, might be used in part to subsidize things like roof repair and the sale of vacant lots.)

The meeting ended with no further whiff of infighting. Giles left while other attendees gathered around Cherepko.

“You don’t get to come into a council meeting, embarrass me, and ask for help,” the mayor told them. “You do that, I’ll shut you out forever.”

‘A wreck for real’

“I relapsed a couple of days ago,” Gerald Mitchell told the group at First Step’s chilly clinical office. On this November day, the subject of the morning discussion was avoiding relapse, and that had not been an area of strength for the 67-year-old McKeesport man.

Mitchell told the group that he had been getting high for 50 years, and first shot heroin when he was 21. It had cost him jobs, landed him in legal trouble and filled him with shame: He skipped his mother’s funeral to get high, he told the group.

“My life has been a wreck,” he said, eyes damp. “It’s been a wreck for real.”

Gerald Mitchell, a First Step Recovery Homes resident, becomes emotional as he tells a group of residents about his difficult road. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In years past, he’d gone to recovery homes to avoid winter on the street or meet terms of probation. First Step was the first program that he approached with a sincere desire to get well. “My relapses are a pattern,” he said. “What I need to do is start to take my recovery to heart.”

Some First Step residents have decades of substance use, criminal histories and mental health diagnoses, Giles said a few days later. If they weren’t under his roofs, some might be homeless, committing crimes to support their addictions. 

For some of them, the program clicks, he said. “Once we are able to educate them on drug and alcohol addiction, and how it affects not only them, it affects the community, it affects the whole neighborhood, they can make a change in their lives, where they want to be productive.”

To keep First Step afloat, he cut his own salary, once $82,500, to $65,000, he said. He was considering asking his staff to accept a week’s delay on their next pay. Recent grants of $15,000 from The Pittsburgh Foundation and $9,999 from the Allegheny County Health Department would help in the short term, he said.

They won’t cover needed basement and sewer work on his buildings, though. What’s the plan?

Despite the clashes at council, Giles held out hope for detente with the mayor.

“Hopefully we can start talking again together,” he said, “because we both want the same things for the community.”

Correction (12/2/21): McKeesport’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] funds was reduced to $24.7 million from the initial allocation indicated in an earlier version of this story.

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

This story was fact-checked by Amelia Winger.

This story was made possible with financial support through the American Press Institute.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...