At the starting line of the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco last June, flour tortillas are flying, and runners are preparing to make the annual 12K pilgrimage from the Bay Bridge to the Pacific Ocean. Heading to our assigned corral, I spot a few racers rolling kegs and one totally naked but for his scant fringe skirt. A guy standing right beside me snags a tortilla and sends it skyward again. The starting countdown begins and ends, but we barely move.
When the mass of bodies loosens up, the tortilla winger—I’ll call him Jon*—darts to an opening. I follow close, hoping to stay with him. That’s why I’ve come. This is my first race with Back on My Feet, an organization that uses running as a catalyst for homeless rehabilitation. The idea that a running group could change someone’s life doesn’t seem far-fetched to me—without mine, I’m not sure I could survive raising my kids. For a decade, I’ve been meeting some subset of ten women most mornings for a five-to-ten-mile jaunt. The running itself is largely beside the point of our predawn collective, and I imagine that the same holds true for the homeless individuals who become quickly folded into their Back on My Feet tribe.
I came to Bay to Breakers to meet the Back on My Feet contingent, expecting to do a mellow walk-jog—I’d take my “real” run later. But Jon, whom I’d met a week earlier on my first morning run with the Back on My Feet crew, is fit, and only 23, and his pace shows it. The run was far from mellow. This turned out to be the first of my many misjudgments about the Back on My Feet folks. Pushing myself to keep up, my glutes burned as I climbed the Fell Street hill and finally entered Golden Gate Park, around mile four. Jon eventually slowed slightly, but nearing the beach at the seven-mile mark, he sprinted off. We reunited at the finish line, sharing a salty embrace.
He was beaming. “I kicked it to the finish,” Jon said proudly. In my clammy tank, the ocean air quickly chilled me, and I wanted a warm shower. The crowds dashed my hopes that we’d find the rest of the group, and we hadn’t set a meeting spot—so my plan was to walk a bit and then call an Uber. I didn’t know where Jon was heading. Are shelters even open midday on Sunday? I didn’t ask, worried about making him uncomfortable. After leaving him there, I wondered all day about how he was faring.
Back on My feet was founded in Philadelphia in 2007 by serial entrepreneur Anne Mahlum, then 26 and aimless, after she ran past a group of homeless men and later dropped into a shelter to invite some of the folks to join her on a run. Today, the group has chapters in 12 cities, including Austin, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and more than 6,000 homeless individuals have participated to date. (To recruit new members, Back on My Feet staffers visit shelters and pitch the concept.) The San Francisco chapter launched in 2016 and is the newest of the bunch. The idea behind the program is to harness the camaraderie of a running group, boost that with individual assistance like job leads and interview prep, and eventually transition the members from the streets to more stable living.
A simple incentive scheme underpins the program: The more participants stick with the running, the more help they get. After two consecutive runs, members get brand-new running shoes and clothes. If they complete 90 percent of the thrice-weekly runs for a month, they enter the “Next Steps” phase, which brings a caseworker who helps outline a plan for securing work and housing. Caseworkers jump in to help however is necessary—whether that means chasing a lost wallet, transporting clients to the DMV, paying the security deposit on an apartment, or securing a fresh supply of disposable contact lenses. (Jon’s lenses had been in his eyes for four months when he first showed up at Back on My Feet.) One caseworker even loaned a member her boyfriend’s belt and pants for a job interview. The painfully early 5:45 a.m. start time for the group runs is intentional—jobs demand similarly rigid discipline. For job connections, Back on My Feet leverages partners like Safeway, Marriott International, and Stripe, which are open to hiring qualified candidates.
San Francisco badly needs initiatives like Back on My feet. As of this writing, the current waitlist for a shelter bed is 1,131 people long. Despite decades of focused and varied initiatives, the street population remains the highest per capita among the nation’s largest cities. In the 1980s, San Francisco built emergency shelters and soup kitchens and purchased cheap hotels for temporary housing. Next came “multi-service centers,” a beyond-shelters approach emphasizing extensive wraparound social services. In 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom implemented the controversial “Care Not Cash,” program, redirecting funds to create 3,000 new housing units. Currently, the focus is on building housing and the Online Navigation and Entry (ONE) System, a single database for all outreach to streamline the tracking and triage of homeless individuals into social services and shelter. Despite such a range of approaches, 7,500 San Franciscans are homeless.
I initially assumed that Back on My Feet’s magic lies in the individualized approach to overcoming barriers. I figured that had to be the explanation for how approximately 500 of its participants have found work and 300 have secured housing. But Cricket Miller, the organization’s San Francisco program director, insists that the real power lies with the running group. The members form friendships with each other and build confidence as their mileage increases. Their interactions with volunteers also help restore a sense of normalcy, dignity, and social inclusion to their lives. “The members are always saying, ‘I can’t believe these people want to talk to me,’” Miller says, explaining that many members’ only human interaction comes from the social services system. “It’s nice to be around regular people.”
The Wednesday before Bay to Breakers, I had shown up at 5:45 a.m. to a vacant lot in the Tenderloin neighborhood. I stepped over a chain-link fence to join a circle of about 15 people. It was my first time volunteering, which entails joining for the morning run. Many members and volunteers greeted me with a hug. This running group is one of two that the organization sponsors in the city; each have meeting spots situated close to several shelters. During warm-ups, I scanned the faces. Who here is homeless? I imagined it would be obvious, but with almost all of us decked out in running gear, it was nearly impossible to tell.
I headed off with the three-mile group. A slight guy named Matthew jogged beside me and shared that he had been accepted into a natural-foods cooking school and might try a GoFundMe campaign to raise his tuition. It was around this time that four American women had advanced to the U.S. Open finals, so we also talked tennis. Not only is he a player, but he’s also a professional tennis umpire who has officiated matches, even at the U.S. Open. Three months later, while connecting on Facebook with another volunteer, I came across a link to Matthew’s GoFundMe campaign. In his plea for funds, he described himself as an “invisible homeless person,” meaning you wouldn’t guess he’s homeless after meeting him. He’s right. I’d mistakenly assumed during our conversation that he was a volunteer. I learned later that Back on My Feet had assisted him in finding his current job as a dishwasher in a tech company lunchroom.
Back in the empty lot, we stretched, then huddled up, our arms tight around one another. We went around answering the question of the day—what did we hope to try before the end of the month? A black-haired guy in glasses said mochi. I suggested cooking Thai food. For Jon, Barry’s Bootcamp. The wannabe chef said acupuncture. Then Kahtan, a member who seemed to know everyone, made an announcement: “I had nothing 120 days ago. Now I’m starting my new job. I couldn’t have done this without you.” He paused, looking like he might cry. “I’m really back on my feet.” He broke into a crooked smile. “Corny, I know, but I can’t tell my story without those words.” Later in the week, he was moving into an apartment.
Running together in the weeks following Bay to Breakers, I slowly learned parts of Jon’s backstory. Before Back on My Feet, he’d never been a runner, but he played high school basketball. He’d come to San Francisco last year on a bus from Oklahoma City. He was homeless there, too. Jon came knowing he’d initially be on the streets, but a relative told him that San Francisco had strong social services. Growing up, he attended nine different schools. “Military dad?” I asked. “I wish,” Jon said quietly. “Foster homes.”
In June, he’d maxed out his allotted 180 days at the Lark-Inn, the youth shelter where he was living. To avoid the street while awaiting a likely housing option, Jon went to Texas to stay with his dad for a few weeks. “Which isn’t a good situation, but I didn’t have another option,” he explained. While there, Jon missed a key deadline for the two-year transitional housing opportunity he was hoping for. But Miller, who also acts as a caseworker, intervened and convinced the right person to give him a break and rent him the place anyway. Jon returned from Texas and excitedly told the group that he had subsidized housing for two years. “That’s all I need,” he said confidently. “I’m at City College. I can walk onto the basketball team. Then I’ll transfer to a four-year,” he said.
With Miller’s help, Jon had created a résumé and lined up multiple job interviews, including one for a part-time position covering the graveyard desk shift at 24 Hour Fitness and as a clerk in the team-sports section of local retailer Sports Basement. He got both. His City College schooling turned out to be more expensive than he anticipated, so Jon could only swing one course this semester, a basic literature and writing class. He needed the second job to cover rent and school. He paid the initial $2,000 school tuition in cash, and when his next paycheck comes, he’ll pay the last $800.
Huddled up after a recent run, Jon stood beside a young guy with a speech impediment who was too new to have been issued his running gear yet. Jon recognized him from the youth shelter. “You’ll see—now that you’re in gateway housing, it gets much better,” he reassured him. The question of the day: What is something we feel grateful for? “Coffee,” Jon exclaimed. He needed coffee to make it through his new graveyard shift at 24 Hour Fitness.
The following Wednesday, I was ecstatic listening to Jon animatedly describing his nights at the gym. “Between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., I’m the only one there—except the security guard. It’s like I’m running the store,” he said. But when I asked how he was faring in his new place, his voice went flat. “It’s OK,” he said. It was one room, and Jon was getting a roommate, which was causing stress since his night job requires off-hours sleeping. Transitioning out of the shelter is often an adjustment. “You go from zero to 100 very fast. You go from being with 20 other guys, or 300, and then you are all by yourself in a room,” says Miller.
At his new place, Jon now lives two miles from our run meeting spot. He used to just roll out of bed and step out the door, but with the distance and his crazy schedule, he’s not running as regularly. This is one unavoidable reality of the Back on My Feet model—once members are “back on their feet,” the actual running can sometimes fall by the wayside. But Jon showed up right on time last Wednesday. “I had to push it, running, to get here,” he said with a smile.
*Some individuals’ names have been changed to respect their privacy.