Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Valerie Gold recounts the experience joining a team of runners from Back On My Feet, an organization that uses running to help people experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves and to achieve real change.
So much of the work to address homelessness involves waiting: waiting for people’s names to rise to the top of various lists, waiting for apartments to pass inspection, waiting for replacement documents, approvals, or funds. Waiting, and its accompanying frustrations, contribute to the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness endured by many people experiencing homelessness.
As 2014 begins, Back On My Feet (BOMF) is not waiting, but instead is racing forward with its mission to use running to help people experiencing homelessness to realize their own power and to achieve real change. With the addition of two new chapters in the last twelve months, BOMF now operates running teams based in homeless shelters in eleven cities across the country. Nearly 400 individuals experiencing homelessness are running with these teams each month. Eighty-two percent report that their health is good or excellent, and 94 percent describe themselves as hopeful about their futures. And so far, 46 percent of BOMF runners have obtained employment, housing, or both.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, I joined the team of BOMF runners who live at the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans for a pre-dawn run. The team assembled at 5:20 a.m. in the lobby of the shelter. The runners were easy to spot, bundled up in BOMF tracksuits and shod in bright new running shoes. As we waited for a few volunteers (referred to as "nonresident team members") to arrive, Eric,* a tall and friendly vet with an easy laugh, described the 5K race in South Boston that he had run the day before through a fierce wind and temperatures well below freezing. This was his first race, he said, and he almost stopped several times, but was urged on by Kathleen, BOMF’s Program Coordinator, who ran with him the entire way to set his pace and make sure that he achieved his goal of completing the event.
Once everyone arrived, we moved outside, formed a circle, did some jumping jacks to warm up, and then put our arms around one another and recited the Serenity Prayer. And then we were off. I settled in to run next to Joe, an elegantly-coiffed runner with a white goatee whose pace accelerated as the stars faded and the moon slowly set, until I nearly collapsed from trying to keep up with him. The physical suffering was worth it, as Joe was a great conversationalist, expounding upon the concepts of self-efficacy and mental toughness as I gasped and groaned and otherwise generally displayed my lack of any toughness – mental or otherwise. When I finally gave up and waved Joe on, I was immediately joined by a group of women from the Common Ground Team. One of them had her arm in a sling, and all of them shivered cheerfully as they introduced themselves and told me how long they had been on the team. I had no idea which of them were people experiencing homelessness and which of them were nonresident team members. This is part of what works about BOMF– by building teams of runners instead of groups of givers and recipients of support, of assistance, of anything but fellowship and mutual encouragement and accountability, BOMF makes it possible for people who have experienced terrible things, including great isolation, to resocialize and reconnect with others, while building or rebuilding key aspects of their identities: as athletes, teammates, morning people, or just plain survivors. At the same time, nonresident runners have the opportunity to connect in a meaningful and immediately rewarding way with people with whom they might otherwise never be engaged.
After my run, I followed the Boston BOMF staff back to the offices that they occupy, courtesy of Comcast. Victor, Kathleen, and Allison, all fearsomely fit, energetic, and passionate about their work, described their goals for doubling the number of BOMF runners in Boston, and for maximizing the positive impact of their program through strategic partnerships with homeless service providers and individualized supports for runners. They shared challenges, ranging from the easily addressed (advising a new team member that he should relieve himself before leaving the shelter as opposed to doing so mid-run in front of his teammates) to the more complex, like the heightened risk of substance abuse relapse, arrest, or other crisis occurring during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Running alone won’t eliminate this risk, of course, but it can help, and the accountability and sense of belonging that comes from being on a team provides further protection. As Victor, the Boston Executive Director, shared his plans for "over programming" with movie nights, dinners, and races during this period, his investment in the safety and success of each team member was clear.
BOMF is more than a novel idea or a promising practice. It is a reminder that the people we work with in outreach programs and homeless shelters have limitless potential for healing and growth. Running is a great way to tap into this potential. It changes a person from the inside out, and provides a daily demonstration of the lesson so eloquently articulated within BOMF’s vision statement: If we keep moving forward, we arrive someplace different, we arrive stronger and often as better versions of ourselves.
Of course, running is not the only way to move forward or fulfill potential. As 2014 begins, I challenge myself and my colleagues to stop waiting and take inspiration from BOMF to search for new and better ways to be reminded of the tremendous power that each of us holds within.
*Permission was granted by all of the individuals identified in this piece to share first names.
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