Notre Dame program gives students first-hand look at Pittsburgh's homeless

| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 9:12 p.m.

During one of the coldest periods of winter weather Pittsburgh has seen in years, a group of nine local students who attend the University of Notre Dame volunteered to live in the city's homeless shelters to experience poverty firsthand.

“Urban Plunge,” a 48-hour, one-credit winter-break seminar offered by the South Bend, Ind., university enables students to provide direct service to the impoverished, discuss social-justice issues with those in local agencies and speak with those afflicted by urban poverty.

“It tears down your stereotypes of what homelessness is and begs the question as to how can we alleviate the problem in the future,” said Michael Brown, 19, of Shaler, a sophomore at Notre Dame who participated in the “Urban Plunge.”

“Even trying to help one person is so incredibly beneficial.”

Students stayed at either the Pleasant Valley Shelter, part of Northside Common Ministries, or Bethlehem Haven in the Hill District in the evenings and traveled around the city during the day to learn about the organizations available to help the impoverished and homeless in Pittsburgh.

Notre Dame's “Urban Plunge” program is offered in 39 cities throughout the country.

The Pittsburgh plunge, now in its 37th year, is organized by the local Notre Dame alumni club.

Teresa Hagan, the “Urban Plunge” coordinator for Pittsburgh, is a member of the alumni club and participated in the plunge during her freshman year.

“I think the main thing I got out of it and what we hope all students who participate in the plunge (get) is exposure to urban poverty,” Hagan said. “We don't intend students to participate in direct service but experience the broad array of issues out there and think critically about it.”

Paige Hardman, 19, of Cranberry Township, said she saw a side of Pittsburgh she never knew existed.

Hardman, a Notre Dame freshman, signed up for the plunge after a high school friend from Aquinas Academy in Hampton suggested the experience. She spent her evenings at the Bethlehem Haven women's shelter.

“The homeless shelter we visited was really near Consol Energy Center,” she said. “When I'm in a concert or game at Consol Energy Center, I'm never aware of the fact that feet away, there are homeless people struggling.”

Hardman, who has aspirations of becoming a dentist, spent time with the women at the shelter and learned that homelessness can happen to any person at any time.

“A speaker (who presented to the group) told us (that) through homeless shelters had (been) doctors, lawyers, dentists … and that surprised me a little bit and made me realize that could be me,” she said.

“It's not an ‘us vs. them,' and ‘I'm not poor, but they are.' It's not ‘They're just like us,' it's ‘They are us.'”

The male students who stayed at Pleasant Valley Shelter, on Pittsburgh's North Side, spent Jan. 6 watching the final BCS National Championship game with men at the shelter and learned how much they had in common.

“I swear, everyone in the city has an opinion on sports,” Brown said. “It was no different than talking to friends in your living room.”

Brown also was surprised to find a man who had a degree from the University of Pittsburgh and have discussions on political theory and writings by Niccolò Machiavelli with another man at the shelter.

Brown even gave book suggestions to some of the men based on their interests and discussions.

“I (saw) a side of Pittsburgh that as long as I've lived here and gone through the city, I didn't know about,” Brown said. “I hoped at the beginning of the process it would be something that was eye opening, and it certainly has been that.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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