Sept. 25, 2009 (Baden, PA-Beaver Falls, PA, 10.8 miles)

Twenty miles to the north of Pittsburgh the town of Aliquippa is perhaps the most run-down town I have seen in my life. Many of its buildings are abandoned and drug dealers and prostitutes run rampant. I was warned against visiting the town. I was told it was a dangerous and terrible place to go.

Then I met Mitchell Unis, one of the owners of Ba’Runi Hotel & Grill in Baden where I had spent the night. Unis agreed that Aliquippa was a town in crisis. But, he said, it was a town with residents and business owners dedicated to turning things around in Aliquippa and elsewhere in Beaver County. He added that on more than one occasion he has offered the hotel as a place to stay for people who would otherwise be homeless.

Early today he called me and said he was giving my number to Norah Miller, who works with the homeless population in Beaver County. In a breach of my normal rules against accepting rides I decided to accept a tour of the area with Miller. And she and Lisa Kelleher, who organizes transitional housing in Beaver County, talked with me about the challenges they face in helping people rise out of homelessness and poverty.

Kelleher herself was once a recipient of public services and managed to graduate from college and now is in a position to help others. She said one of the things she finds most frustrating is how difficult it can be to navigate the system. But she is dedicated to helping people get the services they need to get them on their feet.

Locally the reasons people find themselves homeless can vary. Some have just left jail and are left to fend for themselves with no home or job upon their exit from incarceration. Others are victims of the high rates of unemployment (8.5 percent in July 2009 according to the U.S. Department of Labor) have substance abuse problems or are the product of what Kelleher referred to as generational poverty.

“Some people don’t even know what to do at a job interview,” Kelleher said.

At one time residents were able to graduate from high school and go directly to a good job in the steel mills. But then in the 1980s the mills left as jobs were lost to outsourcing. And the region never recovered. Aliquippa was one of the hardest hit towns.

But it is not all bad news. At Uncommon Grounds Cafe in Aliquippa John and Alison Stanley are working hard to lift residents out of poverty and strengthen the downtown. The Stanleys came from Australia to the US as a part of the Church Army organization and spent four years creating Uncommon Grounds Cafe. Alison Stanley said there was a need for a space downtown for a community gathering place. The cafe is staffed by volunteers and anyone can come and wash windows, clean or otherwise contribute in exchange for a meal. And there are plans underway to install a shower and a washer and dryer.

Miller told me there is also an effort underway to bring a grocery store to Aliquippa and she is hopeful that other businesses will come. “But it’s easier to change architecture than people’s perception,” she said noting that many people won’t even come to the library because it is located in downtown Aliquippa.

But as discouraging as Alison Stanley admits it can be to keep their business and nearby home maintained in a sea of buildings in disrepair, she is not giving up hope. In just the few years since she and her husband opened Uncommon Grounds Cafe several other shops have followed.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper