Homeless Population Finds Their Way Off The Streets By Running Through Them

April 18, 2016Posted by Linda Hernandez

Rarely are we encouraged to run from our problems; that’s why one program is motivating people struggling with homelessness to run right through them–ultimately, overcoming them–one step at a time.

The program, Back on My Feet (BoMF), recruits people from homeless shelters to go for a run three times a week, bright and early, for 30 days. Once they’ve completed that phase of the program, they graduate to Next Steps, a second part of the program that provides educational support, employment referrals, job training, and housing referrals to its participants.

How’s that for motivation?

To be sure, running teaches many important life skills, like how to take things step by step when the larger goal seems too far out of reach. Carole Dowdy from Austin, Texas, had that very experience.

Dowdy was led to BoMF’s starting line through sad circumstances: taking care of her dying father led to serious health issues of her own, and the eventual loss of her income and home. When she learned about BoMF, she was living in a Salvation Army shelter.

Back on Feet 1

“At first, I heard they were giving away brand new tennis shoes if you showed up,” Dowdy said. “I went for the shoes.”

But those shoes came with a price: she had to sign a commitment letter promising to show up for an early morning run, three days a week, and support her teammates. She had never run before in her life.

So, she started out by walking, just a single mile, and continuing to train, she said, provided her with discipline, accountability, motivation.

Eventually, she ran her first 5K to celebrate her 50th birthday, and landed a job with BoMF corporate sponsor Accenture.

Another runner who was encouraged to go the distance at a slow and steady pace was Sandra–identified only by her first name–from Philadelphia, who also had no prior running experience.

After a little encouragement, Sandra went from walking the route to running the last block, and finished with people cheering her on.

“It was the first time she had people behind her,” BoMF CEO Katy Sherratt said. “We’re not going to solve this (homelessness) without looking at them as whole people. People can’t survive on food and shelter alone.”

Sandra went on to run a 10k, find a job, and get her own apartment. She was recently honored as one of BoMF’s ‘People of the Year.’

Back on Feet 3

In as little as 60 days of running, participants also see health benefits like lower blood pressure and weight loss, and an improved, positive outlook for their future. Running has also shown to help break a cycle of substance abuse endemic with many homeless people.

“The addiction they had becomes running,” Sherratt said. “They have a bad day at work, they go out on a run.”

In fact, Dowdy credits it with helping her break a 30-year smoking habit, trading her old ways of coping for a healthy alternative.

Since 2007, Back on my Feet has served more than 5,500 members who’ve run more than 500,000 miles, and secured 3,500 jobs and homes. It currently operates in 11 U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, and Atlanta, with 12th location opening in San Francisco in November. Along with donors and corporate sponsors, the nonprofit relies on volunteer runners from all walks of life to provide a sense of community and support.

Call it “Fund-Racing” if you will. 

“CEO’s and the homeless run together,” says Sherratt. “And when they’re running, you can’t tell the difference between them.”


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