An organisation in the United States helps people experiencing homelessness – by asking them to lace up their running shoes. Back on My Feet uses a “running-based model”, where members commit to three morning runs a week as part of a larger programme that aims to increase self-esteem, strength and confidence, and also provides jobs and skills training.
Back on My Feet operates in 12 different cities throughout America, and usually recruits members at homeless or residential facilities. The only prerequisite? A positive attitude and a willingness to change one’s lifestyle. Members run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, alongside non-homeless volunteers, and if they achieve a 90 per cent attendance rate for at least 30 days they are able to move on to the ‘Next Steps’ part of the programme.
‘Next Steps’ involves working with Back on My Feet staff to plan a personal roadmap for getting a job and housing. All members are offered job training that takes different forms, such as CV workshops, interview practice and financial literacy classes. It can also be more specific according to the person’s needs: passing their high school diploma or getting a qualification in Forklift Truck Driving or hospitality.
The organisation is financed through different means: corporate funding partners such as AT&T, Accenture, Ernst & Young and Marriott support the organisation both financially and also through helping with 'Next Steps' by providing professional training, grants towards qualifications and job opportunities. The organisation relies a lot on help from its volunteers at a local level, and also raises money through fundraisers, particularly fundraisers for marathons and other races.
“The adrenaline of running provides that ‘runners high’ to drive you in other aspects of your life”
It’s a really inclusive sport with limited barriers and relatively little training required – all you need is pavement and a pair of sneakers. The adrenaline running provides and the sense of accomplishment help provide that ‘runners high’ to drive you in other aspects of your life. Ninety per cent of our members routinely report increased self-esteem and self-confidence because they are doing something they didn’t think possible. If you are living in a homeless shelter, struggling to see a way out, running can give you a sense of calm, clarity and accomplishment.
After leaving her job with a large multinational company, Phaedra Malatek, 51, had health problems that meant she wasn’t able to go back to work for two years – and by the time she felt able to, she had lost a lot of her connections and skills from being out of the workplace for so long. She moved into transitional housing, known in the US as an SRO (Single Room Occupancy), which is a residence similar to a hotel where residents share bathrooms and kitchens but have their own single bedrooms.
She found out about the local branch of the programme where she lived in Chicago and she ruminated on it for six months – before finally plucking up the courage to turn up at the local group for her first run on her 50th birthday in June 2015.
“I was living rather than striving or surviving”
I just showed up and said, ‘Hi, I want to run with you’. I heard that they would take me even if I was walking, I didn’t have to run. I knew that there was nothing else available to me.
At that time I wasn’t hopeful and I wasn’t desperate. I was just living. I was living rather than striving or surviving. I was hoping to get a job that was commensurate with my abilities but I didn’t know how to do that. I had been down sick and not connected for so long that I just didn’t know how to get a job. I am an unusual case: I’m fully educated with a masters degree, I’m not a minority, and I don’t have dependent children — so on paper it was very difficult for people to see why I couldn’t get a job.
Phaedra [middle, in white], finishing the 2016 Marathon in Chicago.
There’s this thing that I call the idleness of homelessness. It’s very common in the people that I see where I live: there’s nothing to do. It costs too much to travel anywhere, to go to a museum or a library. Back on My Feet really addressed that problem because every 48 hours you had something to do, and that was so important to me.
“Just come back”
I think I learned quickly that the expectation was just ‘come back’. On that first run with them, there was someone to do every step with you: when I stopped, they stopped; and when I started, they started again. Everybody runs with everybody. The rule is that no one is left behind so if somebody starts to fall off, somebody else will fall off with them.
When I started running I was only running half a block. Last May I ran a half-marathon, and that was the moment that I realised I was a runner. It was a difficult finish, I was in a lot of pain, I was struggling, and as I came around the final corner to the finish line, I heard people in the crowd yelling a phrase of mine that I always say at the beginning and end of a run. The person who started the chant was someone who had won her age group, and had hung around for hours to wait to shout encouragement at me. Having someone stay to do that was really impactful.
Phaedra [middle, in white] after completing the October 2016 marathon in Chicago.
Since joining Back on My Feet, Phaedra has found a full-time job and has run both marathons and half-marathons. She continues to run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.
I would say that now a third, if not half, of my life is Back on My Feet. They’re my friends, they’re my confidants, the way I spend my time and money, they’re part of the decisions that I make. I think about the impact they’ve made on my life. I would not be able to do my job or have my job if it weren’t for Back on My Feet. It’s become a lifestyle.