Norwin grad takes close look at homeless problem

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 9:47 p.m.

Vincent Riccelli says that growing up in North Huntingdon didn't provide much perspective on what life was like for homeless people.

But his ideas about homeless people changed last week when the 2012 Norwin graduate and fellow Notre Dame students spent several days visiting social service agencies and sleeping in homeless shelters.

“Like others who have never had direct contact with people who, for whatever reason, have ended up on the streets, I definitely had some misconceptions about the homeless,” said Riccelli, 20, a sophomore studying biology.

Riccelli, who said he plans to attend medical school, is the son of Carla and Tony Riccelli.

“The men I got to know at the homeless shelter were very sociable, friendly and willing to share their life story. It was a real eye opener and I came away with the understanding that, while they may have made some bad decisions in their lives, the situation they ended up in was often no fault of their own.”

Riccelli participated in the university's 36th Pittsburgh Plunge – a one-credit seminar held during the winter break in which participants spend 48 hours visiting and helping out at food banks, soup kitchens and other organizations that help the needy. The students spent the nights with clients at homeless shelters.

Nearly 300 students from the Catholic university in South Bend, Ind., participated in 40 Urban Plunge projects across the country.

The program's coordinator said it allows students to experience a part of urban life that is easily overlooked.

“Typically, cities are places that we go for sports events, shopping or work,” said Melissa Marley Bonnichsen, coordinator of Notre Dame's Urban Plunge project. “But there is another side to American cities. The Urban Plunge is the students' chance to learn about poverty in their own hometowns and put faith in action.”

Riccelli stayed at Northside Common Ministry's Pleasant Valley Shelter in the city's North Side.

Jay Poliziani, the shelter's director, said financial difficulties is often the root cause of homelessness.

“The reality is, maintaining a middle-class lifestyle is a challenge,” he said. “I've met many men during the 20 years I've been working in social services who had careers, families and a homes but lost it all when the job was gone or they experienced a single major health issue that depleted their finances. I don't think many people realize, or want to acknowledge, just how close they are to being in the same circumstances.”

Riccelli said he gained a new understanding of the plight homeless people face.

“It's easy to look away when you encounter a homeless person or someone who is panhandling on the street,” he said. “Perhaps it's a safety mechanism, a way to avoid realizing that poverty does exist.

“But after getting to know some of these people, I realize that not acknowledging them is dehumanizing and robs them of their dignity. They are not only deserving of our help and attention, we should treat them like we would treat anyone else and extend some respect, which I've learned can make a huge difference to them.”

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626.

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