Joseph was spending his days drunk, alone and afraid living in the Lark Inn shelter in San Francisco when he learned about a running club designed to empower homeless people.
He says his first team run with Back on My Feet was at 5:45 a.m. on April 5, 2017—and it was grueling.
“In the beginning it was kind of like a void,” says Joseph, 24, who became a foster kid at age 2 and lacked family support when he started drinking at age 19 after joining a fraternity at an Oklahoma college where he played Division 2 basketball.
He adds: “I was still drinking pretty hard. I was puffing on that first run.”
Despite the pain of the run, he was hooked by the community of runners.
“When you get up in the morning, you have people waiting for you,” he says. “You have that support and love that you need. The reason I kept coming out is friendship. Now I meet friends outside the program. It’s unconditional friendship and the first community like this I’ve ever had.”
Joseph is now sober and juggling work with classes at San Francisco City College and the school basketball team. He is living in transitional housing and recently completed a half-marathon. He says Back on My Feet is the impetus that got him to turn around his life and the organization has supported him along the way, providing helping with everything from buying books for school to connecting hime with 24 Hour Fitness for a job.
“They offer more than exercise,” says Meghan Freebeck, CEO of San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect, an initiative to address the city’s intractable homeless crisis. “They offer a chance to be a part of a community that empowers one another to reach goals. Today the goal may be small, such as the motivation to go for a run, but tomorrow it might be something greater.”
Operating in 12 cities across the U.S., Back on My Feet employs running to give homeless people the confidence, motivation and community to relaunch their lives.
The program pulls members from homeless shelters and these folks go on early morning runs of about 1 mile to 3 miles along with a group of volunteers who offer encouragement, support and guidance.
To stay in the program, you’re required to make three runs a week.
After 30 days, members with 90 percent attendance move into the next phase of the program that provides educational support, job training, classes in financial literacy and employment referrals to hiring partners that include Marriott Hotels, Cigna, Wells Fargo and Cliff Bar.
“The running brings structure,” says CEO Katy Sherratt. “It gives them a reason to get up in the morning. It shows them they can be accountable and it shows our partners they can be dedicated. If you can get up at 5:30 to do a run, you can get up at 5:30 to go to work.”
For those members who stay committed, the program continues to offer services that address barriers they might face as they rebuild their lives, such as a deposit on a rental or transportation to a job.
The program was founded in 2007 by Anne Mahlum whose daily runs through the streets of Philadelphia brought her past a homeless shelter where she always waved hello to the same group of men who affably badgered her.
Mahlum began to wonder why she was running past these people and not with them—after all, running was the way she dealt with the stresses of life and kept herself motivated and she wondered if it might also help these men who were down on their luck.
At age 26, she called Richard McMillen, the executive director of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission where these men were living, and asked if she could invite them to join her, according to a story in USA Today.
Nine of them showed up for the first run on July 3, 2007, and Back on My Feet was born.
The charity has served more than 6,000 people across the nation, helping 1,700 get education training, 2,378 find jobs and 1,608 move into housing, according to the organization.
Mahlum is still connected with the organization but her focus is now on a chain of gyms she founded in Washington, D.C.
The San Francisco program launched in October 2016 and has served 110 members who got past the 30-day point. Of these, 49 have found long-term employment or education and 20 have been housed.
Sherratt says one of those people who found employment was Khatan, a former photographer in war-torn regions who had lost his job and fell on hard times.
Khatan spoke at a Back on My Feet event attended by hiring partners and the general manager of the San Francisco Marriott was impressed.
“When Kahtan was speaking he said, ‘I want to hire him,'” she says. “I tingled because that’s what we’re here for. He has a home now, a place to stay, a place to call his home.”
Sam Dodge, the homelessness coordinator for the S.F. Department of Public Works is another local who is impressed by the program and its members. Dodge first became familiar with the program while working in New York for the city’s Department of Homeless services and says he was thrilled when he heard the organization was opening in S.F.
Dodge identifies with the program and its ability to inspire people as he’s a runner himself.
“Running is how I help process my day and the stresses of everyday life” Dodge says. “It’s one of those techniques that’s used to help get on top of the problems in life. It’s a good way to start a day and clear your plate before you dive into everything else. It’s so hard to find a niche in San Francisco where there are a lot people working in that space to help the homeless, and to me this is a very special project.”
In San Francisco, about 7,500 people are homeless according to the last count, but this number is elusive and some believe the number is between 10,000 and 12,000. With only some 2,400 shelter beds in the city, there are many people sleeping on sidewalks, in parks and under freeway overpasses.
Sheratt says that of the cities the program serves, S.F. has one of the more challenging situations.
“One of the big differences we’ve seen is in the shelter system,” she says. “People are in shelters for a shorter time period and we might be in the middle of working with someone and then they lose their place in the shelter. That’s hard.”
Crickett Miller is the program director for Back on My Feet in San Francisco and has worked with the homeless population for 10 years.
When she was offered the job, she was working in a shelter in the Mission and remembers looking at the 75 people sleeping there and thinking, How in the world are any of these people going to get up early to go for a run?
“I was wrong,” Miller says. “People do come out and run. Shelters are very stressful environments and it’s difficult to sleep. It really surprised me how many people will get up in the morning to run.”
Now Miller is working with a team of people who amaze and inspire her every day. She says her members come to her with low self-esteem and “they don’t think they can do anything.” They can’t imagine that they’d ever get a job or go back to school.
“Once they start running 3 or 5 miles, they start to realize the things they can achieve,” she says.
Talking about her current team of members, Cricket mentions seven who have given up smoking, one who ran a 5K race, one who beat his mile time by 90 seconds, and another who was overwhelmed by the kindness of a volunteer who gave him a birthday card. He hadn’t received a birthday card in 20 years.
It’s these little things that build up members self-esteem and create self-efficacy and Cricket says this is the key to the program’s success.
“Most programs are housing or treatment first—Back on My feet isn’t either,” she says. “We’re self-esteem first. Once that is built up, we try to tackle the other things like housing and jobs. We try to give them a support network before shoving them into more independence. The team lets you know that you’re not in it alone.”