Among the concertgoers and bar hoppers milling around the North Shore, about 60 participants gathered for Pittsburgh’s Coldest Night of the Year 5K walk on what ended up being an unseasonably mild Saturday evening.
Hosted by Bethlehem Haven, Coldest Night of the Year is a 30-plus-year-old event found in cities around the world. Participants can choose to walk a 2K or 5K, either onsite or offsite, on what is typically one of the more frigid nights of the year to recognize the elements that individuals experiencing homelessness often face during winter months.
This year, Pittsburgh walkers were met with pink skies and slight breezes as the sun fell over their route that began at Stage AE. They trekked along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail on the North Side before crossing the Andy Warhol Bridge into the Cultural District and looping back to their starting point.
Tanya Posavatz of Pine said supporting individuals experiencing homelessness is “dear to my heart” as a single mother.
Posavatz and her 9-year-old son, Tomislav, both outfitted in matching beanie hats, opted for the 1-mile course on Saturday. Posavatz said it’s important to her to expose her son to cause-centric events and opportunities to be part of the community.
The two had previously lived in Austin, Texas, and while the homeless crisis was apparent there, it seems “tenfold” to Posavatz in Pittsburgh due to the colder climate.
“My heart breaks for people in cold weather,” she said. “That’s why it resonates so strongly — it underlines additional issues homeless people face.”
Bethlehem Haven has been providing emergency shelter and permanent housing to women for 41 years. The organization offers medical respite and supportive services to men and women living throughout the county and is part of the Safe at Home program, which prioritizes women over 50 with young children in their households. Bethlehem Haven serves folks at its Watson Street location Downtown in addition to its Fifth Avenue facility located in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood.
This is the second year Bethlehem Haven has participated in Coldest Night of the Year. As of Saturday, it had raised $13,750, which will be allocated to programs with the highest need.
“This is a new but it’s a very important, if understated, event for us because it really is a very contemplative event where we’re gathering in unity to show and to experience what others in our community may be feeling and what they experienced to even a small degree,” said Kate Colligan, development and communication lead at Bethlehem Haven.
Felisha G. of Monroeville had raised $800 of her $1,010 goal before she set out on her 3-mile journey. The number 1010 comes from her favorite Bible verse, John 10:10.
“I have a heart for other people,” Felisha said. “I’m all about other people who are hurting and people in distress.”
She originally heard about the event on television and decided to sign up, asking her friends, family and colleagues to donate to her fundraiser.
“Everybody needs a place to lay their head at night,” she said. “It’s not about us. If you have stuff to give, just give it. It’s not about time or money … it’s about meeting people where they are.”
She called Coldest Night of the Year a “good way to have that conversation” when it comes to unsheltered folks in Pittsburgh.
Though different initiatives addressing unsheltered individuals have been taken up by the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, there are still people who choose to remain homeless, many of them driven by substance and mental health disorders, explained Annette Fetchko, Bethlehem Haven’s executive director.
“To be able to have an event that puts each of us in the shoes of an individual who has or is experiencing homelessness is really important because we are then able to really experience what their journey is like. We are seeing them and we are hearing them through this experience,” she said.
By participating in Coldest Night of the Year in Pittsburgh, Fetchko hopes attendees glean awareness and sensitivity to the homelessness epidemic.
“This is not a moral failing,” Fetchko said. “This is not anything other than these are individuals who have experienced some trauma along their journey, and if we can build awareness for wraparound supportive services for that trauma, we can really then prevent homelessness, and I mean that in all sincerity.”
Since opening its doors 41 years ago, there hasn’t been a night that Bethlehem Haven’s shelter hasn’t been at capacity, Colligan said.
Homelessness is not a new public health crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue and, according to Fetchko, Bethlehem Haven has seen a new population spiral into homelessness over the past three years — women over 55.
“We have always had unhoused homeless individuals throughout our communities, regions and across the country,” Fetchko said. “It was brought to light through the escalation of all of the acute and added adverse circumstances that resulted from the pandemic, and as a result of that a lot of focus and a lot of attention from various stakeholders have come into play.”
Homelessness is not the real problem, rather communities need to assess the trauma and issues that are preventing an individual from successfully moving upstream along that continuum of care, Fetchko said.
“I am a real advocate of engaging in substantive dialogue about what we could all do, and I think we’re certainly building that awareness, that advocacy, and certainly, [with] Coldest Night of the Year, our hope is that individuals across the stakeholder continuum see these individuals and they hear them,” she said.
Bethlehem Haven recently launched an initiative that will utilize funding from county, city, federal, state and stakeholders to build a 43-unit low-income affordable housing model in Uptown. The organization plans to close on the project at the end of December and begin construction in early 2024.