Back on My Feet fights homelessness with running
They’re turning the idea of getting people experiencing homelessness “off the streets” on its head by joining them in the early mornings out on the streets to pound the pavement. And this time, everyone wants to be there—countless enthusiastic volunteers, guest runners, and members of the program alike. They’re a family, and they’ll make you fall in love with them the moment you take your first step.
“We’re hugging, I don’t know if you know that,” says Beth Awalt, a recent addition to the Back on My Feet Baltimore Christopher Place Team. The sun has not yet risen over the Our Daily Bread Employment Center on Fallsway in East Baltimore. It’s about 5:15 A.M. and Awalt leads me back behind the building where a few other people, wearing running shorts and singlets, are waiting—shivering a little on an unseasonably cool morning.
And the hugging thing doesn’t stop with Awalt—every person that arrived buzzed excitedly around the group, not offering but rather forcibly giving hugs, like greeting a long lost friend or family member. There is no pussyfooting around the fact that everyone is excited to be together, and their warmth and energy is contagious.
We exchange names, form a circle, and play name games like a group orientation—except there was no awkwardness or obvious disdain for ice-breakers. Clapping and chanting ease the mind into wakefulness as we become familiar with the 15 or so faces of the Christopher Place Team. Team Leader Dave Wiseman beckons us towards him as we wrap our arms around each other and begin reciting the Serenity Prayer. The Our Daily Bread Center is a Catholic charity, but Back on My Feet isn’t pushy about the religious undertones. Everyone’s welcome.
Before Back on my Feet arrived in Baltimore, the organization took its first steps in downtown Philadelphia when a young Anne Mahlum had an idea. Mahlum, a running regular on the streets of Philly, decided to make a pit-stop one day at a Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission she had passed on her runs every day, where men would stand outside and greet her as she passed. On that day in May 2007, those men became her teammates rather than her spectators; Back on my Feet was born.
It started simple; Mahlum sent around a sign-up sheet at the Mission and asked that each runner sign a “Dedication Contract” agreeing to show up for early morning scheduled runs four days a week, be on time, support their teammates, and above all: respect themselves. On July 3rd of that year, the first one mile run took place. And then the organization continued to grow and expand, with Mahlum’s idea like a big fish in a small pond. Back on my Feet now has 10 chapters nationwide, and is scheduled to open its 11th in Los Angeles in October, 2013.
After we finish greeting and chanting, we get our choice of three routes—a two, three, or four mile run. Each route was printed up as a list of turns on a small note card—simple, yet highly effective, like everything Back on My Feet does. The three-mile group sets off up Madison Avenue, jogging past fields, city buildings, friendly policeman, and men sitting outside. Mike H., who is on his fourth run. He joined with three other friends, and after scaling back to two miles on the last run, he is ready to crank it back up to three. He knows the streets of Baltimore better than any of the other runners: how many streets away East Baltimore was, which left turn we needed to take. He says that the socialization is his favorite aspect of the program.
The Baltimore Chapter of Back on My Feet was founded in March 2009, and it’s been a magnet for wonderful, genuine people ever since—people who truly want to transform themselves. The organization is built on Anne Mahlum’s platform, but has added a lot more than just morning runs and contracts to the deal. Runners must be 30 days sober to sign up and commit to six months with 90 percent attendance to weekly runs. Though this might sound like a challenge, it’s honestly something worth looking forward to—even when the alarm clock goes off at 4:30 A.M. and it’s still dark out. The runs are more than just a morning physical activity regimen—they’re a community, a place where you’re really meant to feel at home.
Jackie Range, the Regional Director of Communications and Corporate Relations, is excited to talk about her involvement with Back on My Feet Baltimore. She admits that with the issue of homelessness, “running is not going to solve it”, though no single thing will. She describes homelessness like an onion with many layers, one of the most important to peel back being the layer of addiction. Addiction needs to be addressed, and followed by recovery, and Range feels that running is “part of the solution.” Those struggling with addiction or other issues that left have them homeless can find in Back on My Feet a place to start healing—one where support, encouragement, and comfort are key. Just as all runners do, they’ll begin to train their bodies and their souls—building confidence and muscle tone simultaneously.
But Range and Back on My Feet feel that runners build more than just confidence and endurance while they run—they develop “inherent traits” that translate into characteristics of prime candidates for employment, housing, and education. A runner that wakes up at 5:30 A.M Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week to put their bodies through the tolls of a good run comes out with something more than nice quads. They’re dedicated, accountable, reliable, strong, self-respecting, and, with their Back on My Feet running group alongside them, excellent teammates. Members of Back on My Feet start using these adjectives to describe themselves—they become athletes instead of homeless people.
Runners of Back on My Feet teams, as they progress in the program, will get the opportunities that they need and deserve in the “Next Steps” Program: classes directed towards skill development and financial understanding, interviews and employment training, and financial assistance with things like security deposits on permanent housing. These runners will begin to learn how to be self-sufficient. It’s like teaching a man to fish is better than catching a fish for him; teaching a man the strength and technique to hold the fishing pole will feed him for his whole life.
And it works. Currently, 88% of Baltimore’s almost 200 members have moved on to these next steps—and many more have already graduated. 115 have gained employment, 51 have obtained housing, and 83 are enrolled in job-training and educational programs. That’s a lot of people who were homeless, started running, and took their first steps towards a more independent life.
Mike H. and the other residential members—the term Back on My Feet uses for those going through the program—live at the Our Daily Bread Employment Center. It’s a place that offers them a hot lunch, a bed, and more importantly—classes and employment assistance. Mike H. and his buddy Mike B., the two Mikes of the crew, were excited to talk about their home and their classes. But they were even more excited when thinking about the nice long shower that they’d take after they got back from the run. Mike B. was even willing to pass up breakfast for a shower after a hard morning’s work. That part of the equation is certainly universal. And the pair of Mikes especially deserved showers that day, as they’d be logging their tenth mile with Back on My Feet.
Back on my Feet wants everyone to join them. It’s easy to get involved with Back on My Feet as a non-residential member, or volunteer. The website (http://baltimore.
When we round the last turn before the final straightaway, Mike H. says he is feeling pretty good. And the two mile group is waiting on the corner, clapping and raising their palms for solid high-fives. Having someone to clap for you at the end of a run feels like a rare treat reserved for big races—but the Back on My Feet crew makes it feel normal, heartfelt, deserved, and celebratory.