James McCurrie, a senior at Notre Dame, knew that poverty and homelessness existed in the Pittsburgh area, but until Monday he hadn't put a face to it.
That day, Mr. McCurrie, of Upper St. Clair, and five male classmates from Notre Dame, spent the night at the Pleasant Valley Shelter for homeless men on the North Side as part of an experience called "Urban Plunge."
The three females in the group of Notre Dame students spent the same night with women at Bethlehem Haven shelter, Uptown.
The goal of Urban Plunge, sponsored by the university's Center for Social Concerns and organized by local alumni, is for students of all majors to "dip into the issues of urban poverty in their hometown" and "see what poverty really looks like," said Bill Purcell, associate director for the center.
This year marks the 34th year that Notre Dame undergraduates have participated in the Urban Plunge in the Pittsburgh area.
The experience is preceded by studies and reading and followed by analysis and discussions when the students return to campus. This year's group consisted of students from Brentwood, Upper St. Clair, Fox Chapel, Mount Oliver and Oakmont.
Mr. McCurrie said he previously thought of homeless people as unapproachable, but he was surprised to find that the men at Pleasant Valley Shelter, operated by the Northside Common Ministries, were eager to share the story of the struggles that led them there and the obstacles they face in trying to work their way back to an independent life.
"They were very open about their situation and they would tell you about the mistakes that they made in their lives," Mr. McCurrie, an accounting major, said.
His brother, Mike, a junior at Notre Dame, said many of the homeless men spoke of battles with drug or alcohol dependency, "but they still have the motivation to fight their way out of their situation."
Marisa Reiber, a Notre Dame freshman from Mount Oliver, had the same experience with the women at Bethlehem Haven. "A lot of them were more friendly than I expected and despite their stories, they are very hopeful," she said.
In addition to spending the night in the shelters, the students visited a variety of agencies Monday night through Wednesday that provide services to the poor and struggling, including Focus on Renewal Center, McKees Rocks; Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Duquesne; Crossroads Foundation, Hill District; Holy Family Institute, Emsworth; Just Harvest, South Side; Jubilee Soup Kitchen, Hill District; Thomas Merton Center, Garfield; Community Justice Project, Uptown; and Gwen's Girls, East End.
The students drove their own cars and found their way to the agencies without help of a GPS or other electronic devices so that they could get a feel for what it is like for individuals who need to use the services of the agencies.
Kathleen Joyce, a sophomore architecture major from Oakmont, said she was impressed by the number of volunteers working at the agencies who had once used their services. "That's really inspiring," she said.
At the food bank, the students were amazed at the size and scope of the operation.
"I didn't realize how big this place is. It's pretty incredible that more and more people need food," James McCurrie said as he listened to Alyssa Johns, the food bank volunteer manager, describe the 94,000-square-foot-facility that operates on a $15 million annual budget and provides 2.2 million pounds of food a month to 120,000 people in Western Pennsylvania.
After visiting multiple sites, the reality of poverty in their hometown area started to sink in with the students.
"With the Urban Plunge, I have been immersed in a Pittsburgh that was different from what I grew up in," said Leah Koenig, a freshman in biological sciences from Oakmont.
Sean Hannon, a finance major from Fox Chapel, said the Urban Plunge was "eye-opening" for him.
"I finally feel like I've seen the real side of Pittsburgh and met the amazing people who truly make a difference in the city and the world," he said.
Mike McCurrie expressed admiration for those who help others.
"In meeting with all the organizations that we have met with, one obtains a great respect for the passion and selflessness of the individuals who work at these [organizations]. Witnessing their commitment is not only inspiring but remindful of our own call to serve."
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-851-1512. First Published January 12, 2012 5:00 AM