Since a fire destroyed his apartment building and left him homeless nearly three weeks ago, Grant Morrison has been wearing a neighbor's work boots, worried about the day when the neighbor will ask for them back. When he heard yesterday about a Downtown program that issues new shoes to the homeless, he walked all the way from Oakland to get a pair.
"My grandmother says, 'Every journey starts with one step.' These shoes are giving me the first step," said Mr. Morrison, 43.
The "Our Hearts to Your Soles" charity had its first event in early 2006, providing free foot care and shoes to about 50 men at the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side. It has since spread nationwide, issuing 4,000 shoes and boots at Thanksgiving-eve events last year and doubling that during this year's events -- issuing an estimated 8,000 pairs of shoes at 43 sites nationwide, all staffed by orthopedic surgeons and other foot and health experts.
The charity was started by then-North Allegheny High School student Matt Conti five years ago after volunteering at Allegheny General Hospital -- where his father, Stephen Conti, is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in feet, ankles and lower extremities -- and seeing the foot problems that commonly plagued homeless men that came to the hospital.
Dr. Conti had traditionally opened his office for free foot care the day before Thanksgiving and it became a family affair. Matt Conti filed the paperwork to create the nonprofit in 2004. His sister Laura, 18, a freshman at Notre Dame, worked with a Nashville shoe charity to do outreach to other foot specialists nationwide to expand the program.
Younger brother Chris, 16, a North Allegheny junior, started a new charity called "Socks2Soles" to raise money for new socks.
In the first year the family largely pulled it off with the help of friends at Colaizzi Pedorthic Center in Bellevue and Hanger Orthopedics Group in the South Side, as well as Dr. Conti's colleagues at AGH. These days those groups still help, but so does Catholic Charities, which became a partner last year.
By reaching out to four homeless agencies affiliated with Catholic Charities and another five around the area, it issued about 500 pairs of Red Wing shoes and boots Downtown yesterday, up from 200 pairs last year.
Allegheny General provides medical experts to inspect feet and do corn, callus and nail care -- power tools hummed away in a back room of the Charities' Susan Zubik Welcome Center for foot specialists to work on the toughest calluses. Fitting experts guided feet into silver Brannock foot-measuring devices to find the right sizes of work boots, Gore-Tex hiking books, walking shoes and other styles, all of which were donated by Red Wing.
Hospital workers also gave free blood pressure screenings.
About 60 to 70 percent of those who come in -- mostly men -- were wearing ill-fitting shoes, Dr. Conti said.
"This is a blessing, for real," said Calvin Moore, 52, whose old boots were cracked and leaking from six months of living on the streets.
Nolan Brooks, 63, was homeless for two years after getting out of jail and dealing with drug and alcohol problems, but now had a set of new winter boots to go with the new North Side apartment Operation Safety Net had helped him find.
"This is the only place I know of like this. It's very good. They give out nice stuff," Mr. Brooks said.
Richard Kelly, 51, lives in the woods on the South Side riverfront, and carried a blue plastic bag with his new boots in one hand and was getting a bagel with the other. "It's nice stuff down here. Excellent," the Beaver Falls native said.
Our Hearts to Your Soles first partnered with Nashville-based Soles4Souls -- a group founded to issue shoes to Hurricane Katrina victims -- in 2007, joining forces to provide medical attention and shoes in 10 sites nationwide. The two charities began working with Minnesota-based Red Wing shoes last year.
Red Wing donates the shoes -- which range in price from $50 to $125 retail -- and Our Hearts to Your Soles does the fundraising to pay the hefty shipping costs. Soles4Souls handles the distribution to the 43 sites nationwide.
Tim McNulty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.