This past December, on the day after Christmas, Rita Price was laid off from her job. It was a devastating blow for the 56-year-old, who says she has battled depression for most of her life. With nowhere to turn, Price soon found herself in the Bethlehem Haven women’s shelter near Downtown Pittsburgh.
“I’m prone to anorexia. I’ve struggled with [post-traumatic stress disorder],” says Price. “My stress has always been around me, and I don’t know how to handle a lot of issues at once and I get overloaded.”
But during her time at Bethlehem Haven, Price found a way to cope. Since May, she’s been involved in a morning running program for residents at local homeless shelters.
“Running has helped. The shelter has taught me a lot. They have good programs for us to get emotionally healthy,” says Price. “By running, you can get outside of that building and rebuild your life with something good. It’s given me stress-relief. When I’m running, I feel free.”
Created by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, a nonprofit aimed at the city’s younger demographic, the program pairs experienced runners with shelter residents.
“This program can help people by giving them a reason to wake up in the morning and giving them a purpose,” says Jaime Filipek, program development manager. “I truly believe in the power of athletics, and that confidence you get translates.”
There are an estimated 1,400 individuals living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and other supportive-housing residences in Allegheny County. Advocates say programs like Pumped to Run are key to ending the revolving door that finds many homeless individuals struggling to obtain and maintain permanent housing.
“It’s noticeable to me as someone who works at a shelter and is part of this program,” says Sarah Dittoe, residential manager of Bethlehem Haven. “I see people every day who have a difficult situation and, for that reason, might not always be in the best spirits. But every time we get out there and run and walk together, when they come back, they feel good.”
At 7 a.m. on a particularly muggy August morning, a group of runners has just returned to the Bethlehem Haven shelter after completing the final run of the week. Stretching out their well-worked limbs as the sun rises in the sky, their chatter centers on mile-times and goals.
“I just did three miles,” one woman says with a beaming smile. “I was only going to do one.”
It’s a common occurrence says Alyssa Chance, a mentor with the program.
“It’s great to see them hit those goals and try to go out for bigger things,” Chance says. “Maybe that will translate into the rest of their lives.”
Chance started running four years ago and says it changed her life. She says she got involved in the Pumped to Run program because she wanted others to have the same experience.
“If you have a bad day, and you go out for a run, it kind of gives you time to process. It’s something that doesn’t really require a lot besides the commitment,” says Chance. “Maybe some things in their lives aren’t going well, and they feel overwhelmed. This is something they can be in control of when everything else is out of their control.”
One of her favorite parts of the program is the changes she’s seen in former Bethlehem Haven resident Price, who has suffered from asthma all her life.
“In school, I wasn’t able to do any sports — no running, no nothing like that,” says Price. “Everywhere I went, I had to carry an inhaler. My goal was, I want to be able to run and not have to use my inhaler, and be able to breathe and not have to suffer so much. Now when I’m running, I can breathe, and it just feels great. My lungs have gotten stronger. Now I can do five miles.”
Chance says another barrier she saw Price struggle with was a fear of running over bridges, but
together they overcame it.