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North Side mission holds plenty of hope for former homeless man

| Friday, July 5, 2013, 11:46 p.m.
James Knox
Nate Phillips pours bowls of cereal before the start of the breakfast service on Wednesday July 3, 2013, in the Light of Life Rescue Mission in the North Side.
James Knox
Nate Phillips clears plates and refills juice pitchers on Wednesday during the breakfast service on Wednesday, July 3, 2013, at Light of Life Rescue Mission in the North Side. Phillips lived under the Ninth Street Bridge for three years before receiving help from the organization.

As homeless men filed into the dining room at Light of Life Rescue Mission in the North Side, Nate Phillips greeted them at the door.

That morning, Phillips, 34, had scooped cereal into Styrofoam bowls for the men. He poured orange juice into pitchers and set gallons of milk on the table. Before they sat down to eat, he asked if someone would say grace.

“Most of them I can relate to,” Phillips said. “I know how it is to get up out of that chair and dining room and walk out the door, and you don't know what's going on.

“You don't have a plan in your life. You're just going from wherever to wherever, if it's back to sleep under the bridge or if it's to the library to sit there until it opens up.”

That was his life for the three years he lived under the Ninth Street Bridge at Anderson and Lacock streets, sleeping on cardboard and picking cigarette butts out of trash cans as he wandered Downtown.

“I thought I would try to get a new life,” Phillips said. “But I didn't know my life would be under a bridge.”

PennDOT, which owns the property beneath the Ninth Street Bridge, and the city of Pittsburgh this weekend plan to clear homeless camps where Phillips lived. State and city officials on Tuesday gave the homeless five days to move out of the camps, said PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan.

PennDOT crews will erect fences to keep people from returning, Cowan said.

The homeless are trespassing and they start fires and generate a large of amount of garbage, presenting public safety concerns, Cowan said. The bridge area is an active construction zone, where PennDOT does not want people living.

Light of Life helped Phillips change his way of living about 10 months ago, when he asked for help. He moved into a room at the East North Avenue mission and enrolled in its job and recovery programs. He attends meetings daily to cope with drug and alcohol addictions. Counseling helped him understand relationships.

“This place just gave me a lot of hope and a lot of strength,” Phillips said.

Such achievement is not rare, but it is difficult for homeless people to make, experts say.

About 1,700 men, women and children come through Light of Life's doors each year, said Kate Wadsworth, public relations manager for the mission.

Last year, only 31 people graduated from its programs, Wadsworth said, noting that some people do not graduate but do stay off the streets after learning to live independently.

“People have to be ready for it,” said Chuck Keenan, an administrator with the Bureau of Homeless Services at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. “They have to be ready to leave the lifestyle they had on the street.”

In the past five years or so, organizations in the county have moved hundreds of homeless people into housing programs, Keenan said. When officials and volunteers attempted to count Allegheny County's homeless population in January, they found 91 people living on streets and 1,413 people who met the federal definition of homelessness — either living without shelter, staying in a rescue mission or enrolled in a housing program, Keenan said.

As Phillips serves breakfast at the mission — part of his responsibilities there — he recognizes some of the men coming in. He knows their pain.

“To the people that are struggling and homeless, I'm praying for all of you,” Phillips said, reading from a small note he pulled out of the pocket of his shorts. “God loves you and so do I.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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