This past December, on the day after Christmas, Rita Price was laid off from her job. It was a devastating blow for the 56-year-old, who says she has battled depression for most of her life. With nowhere to turn, Price soon found herself in the Bethlehem Haven women’s shelter near Downtown Pittsburgh.
“I’m prone to anorexia. I’ve struggled with [post-traumatic stress disorder],” says Price. “My stress has always been around me, and I don’t know how to handle a lot of issues at once and I get overloaded.”
But during her time at Bethlehem Haven, Price found a way to cope. Since May, she’s been involved in a morning running program for residents at local homeless shelters.
“Running has helped. The shelter has taught me a lot. They have good programs for us to get emotionally healthy,” says Price. “By running, you can get outside of that building and rebuild your life with something good. It’s given me stress-relief. When I’m running, I feel free.”
Created by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, a nonprofit aimed at the city’s younger demographic, the program pairs experienced runners with shelter residents.
“This program can help people by giving them a reason to wake up in the morning and giving them a purpose,” says Jaime Filipek, program development manager. “I truly believe in the power of athletics, and that confidence you get translates.”
There are an estimated 1,400 individuals living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and other supportive-housing residences in Allegheny County. Advocates say programs like Pumped to Run are key to ending the revolving door that finds many homeless individuals struggling to obtain and maintain permanent housing.
“It’s noticeable to me as someone who works at a shelter and is part of this program,” says Sarah Dittoe, residential manager of Bethlehem Haven. “I see people every day who have a difficult situation and, for that reason, might not always be in the best spirits. But every time we get out there and run and walk together, when they come back, they feel good.”
At 7 a.m. on a particularly muggy August morning, a group of runners has just returned to the Bethlehem Haven shelter after completing the final run of the week. Stretching out their well-worked limbs as the sun rises in the sky, their chatter centers on mile-times and goals.
“I just did three miles,” one woman says with a beaming smile. “I was only going to do one.”
It’s a common occurrence says Alyssa Chance, a mentor with the program.
“It’s great to see them hit those goals and try to go out for bigger things,” Chance says. “Maybe that will translate into the rest of their lives.”
Chance started running four years ago and says it changed her life. She says she got involved in the Pumped to Run program because she wanted others to have the same experience.
“If you have a bad day, and you go out for a run, it kind of gives you time to process. It’s something that doesn’t really require a lot besides the commitment,” says Chance. “Maybe some things in their lives aren’t going well, and they feel overwhelmed. This is something they can be in control of when everything else is out of their control.”
One of her favorite parts of the program is the changes she’s seen in former Bethlehem Haven resident Price, who has suffered from asthma all her life.
“In school, I wasn’t able to do any sports — no running, no nothing like that,” says Price. “Everywhere I went, I had to carry an inhaler. My goal was, I want to be able to run and not have to use my inhaler, and be able to breathe and not have to suffer so much. Now when I’m running, I can breathe, and it just feels great. My lungs have gotten stronger. Now I can do five miles.”
Chance says another barrier she saw Price struggle with was a fear of running over bridges, but
together they overcame it.
“This is a city of bridges, so you can’t really go anywhere without crossing bridges,” says Chance. “We kept building up to it, and [one morning] when we got to the bridge, I grabbed her hand, and we ran half of the bridge with me holding her hand. Not only did she make it over the bridge, but then of course, we had to come back over another. She just went over that second bridge like it was nothing.”
Next month, Price and Chance will be running in the Great Race together.
“Things like that are really special moments,” says Chance. “Things she was terrified of, now she’s asking to do. The act of running and enjoying company with one another, that’s really what it’s all about.”
J.R. White, a resident at the Pleasant Valley shelter in the North Side, is another participant in the program.
“It’s a good way to start the day off in the morning. It sets your pace for the rest of the day. I’ve definitely seen a difference in my personality and my demeanor,” says White. “It makes the day a lot easier. Especially in the situation we’re in at the shelter, it makes the days shorter. Believe it or not, getting up a little earlier makes the days shorter and makes them less stressful.”
Before he became a resident at Pleasant Valley, White volunteered at the organization’s food pantry. He says he decided to stay at the shelter after moving out of his mother’s home.
“I didn’t want to impose on my mom with my problems,” says White, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “The exercise helps my cycling [the number of bipolar episodes] be less rapid.”
Next month, he’ll be joining Price and Chance in the Great Race.
“If worse comes to wors[t], I’ll end up walking,” the 50-year-old says with a laugh. “It keeps me young.”
Pittsburgh’s running program was inspired by Back on My Feet, a running program for the homeless that started in Philadelphia. The philosophy is that building confidence, strength and self-esteem are key to helping homeless individuals secure employment and permanent housing.
“Maybe they set a small goal like being able to run a mile or walk for 30 minutes,” says Dittoe, of Bethlehem Haven. “But almost everybody ends up changing their goals and going farther and faster and more than they initially thought they would each time they come out. [It’s] really cool because it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Even if you go a quarter of a mile farther, or a little faster than the day before, you see an improvement.”
Dittoe points to Price as an example of the program’s success. Since participating in the program she’s moved into permanent housing.
“She was the first sort of graduate of the program, and she comes back,” Dittoe says. “She’s pretty important in recruiting people and inspiring people. When she was living at the shelter, she would engage people all the time, and now that she’s not there, she talks to the people who come and tries to get them to come back [to the running group]. She got a lot out of it and wants other people to as well.”
Participants are provided with all of the necessary athletic clothing and shoes from donations Pumped to Run has received. But in addition to more running gear, the program’s organizers are always looking for more mentors — runners like Jessey Neal, who got involved in the program after learning more about Pittsburgh’s homeless population.
“I never knew how much that population of people is marginalized,” says Neal. “Working in Downtown, you really become numb to seeing that all day every day. I didn’t really know how I could make a difference. Who am I? How can I change something?”
But since joining the program and spending his mornings running with residents from local shelters, Neal says he can see the impact the program has had.
“These people, there are obviously different reasons why they’re there — whether it’s mental health, or them just not having the same support system in terms of family that they can fall back on in times of financial duress,” says Neal. “But they’re people just like you and I, and they have the same feelings and needs and wants and desires as the rest of us. Week after week, they open up a little more and talk about their progress, and how running is helping them focus more on things that are important to them. And that’s just a really awesome feeling.”