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Back on My Feet: Overcoming Homelessness One Mile at a Time

It’s just after 6 pm in San Francisco and Kendrick Lamar’s song “HUMBLE.” plays from a radio hanging off of Yolanda’s walker. Our group of almost 20 people takes up most of the sidewalk as we shuffle/walk/dance through the crowded South of Market neighborhood. Part of our group is volunteers and the other part is homeless men and women who are hoping that these walks might be the first step towards getting themselves employed, healthy and housed. While we’re stopped at a light, Yolanda and her friend Lowanna get into the groove of the music. “I wish I could dance like you guys!” one of the volunteers says.

The non-profit that organizes the walks is called Back on My Feet, and their mission is to empower people to walk or run, helping them restore their confidence in themselves and making them better equipped to tackle the daunting task of overcoming homelessness. The basic idea might sound familiar to any athlete: physical activity as a keystone habit for many other positive life changes. And BoMF’s model seems to be working.

“It's the people,” Yolanda said when I asked her why she keeps coming back. Today was the 25th mile she’d walked with the group. “It’s how everybody loves everybody, all the hugs, how everybody roots everybody on, cheers them on, it just makes you want to do it.”

It’s the People

Yolanda found out about BoMF through Lowanna, who she’d met at a women’s shelter. Lowanna told her how much she had enjoyed the community and encouraged her friend to try it out. But Yolanda uses a walker and she was hesitant at first. Now, she’s way into it and she even completed a 5k race last weekend. I asked her if that was something she thought she would ever do before she started coming to these walks.

“No. Never,” she said. “But they encourage you, make you want to do it.” And she has bigger goals in sight. Some of the members were talking about attempting the Berkeley Half Marathon.

“Yeah. I think about,” Yolanda said. “I think I can do it.”

All You Need is a Good Pair of Shoes

Our one mile route takes us from Victoria Manalo Draves Park to a shared workspace where we’ll finish with pizza and an awards ceremony, where runners receive honors for reaching distance milestones or completing events. That time also offers an opportunity for the organizers to let them know about job and housing opportunities. Employers in particular are excited to work with the BoMF team, because the participants have shown a high level of commitment by consistently completing the runs or walks, many of which start at five in the morning.

Once members run with us BoMF for 30 days and have a 90% attendance rate, they move into Next Steps which is a job training and financial literacy program. They work with each member to find the right job that matches their skills and then work on sustainable housing. Lowanna attended a Tools for Success session that helped her complete a resume that she has used to apply for jobs through BoMF and their employment partners.

Russell has been coming to Back on My Feet for a few months and has covered close to fifty miles with the group. Like many of the participants, he first heard about the program when one of the organizers, Cricket, came and spoke at his shelter. “It sounded like a great idea,” Russell said. “And at that point I really did need new pair of sneakers, too. But that's not the only reason… I love walking.” One of the gifts the organization is able to give to every participant is a new or lightly used pair of shoes. For Russell and many others, this is a pretty big deal.

Be Confident

“One day the program coordinator asked me if I would be interested in this run called Back On My Feet,” Lowanna said, starting her story in the familiar fashion. “That was on a Friday. That Monday I came. There were five of us in the program. All five of us came and were running with Back On My Feet. Back On My Feet has given me a place to be, a family, and I had a perfect attendance since June.”

“Since I've been here, oh my goodness, my self esteem has grown,” Lowanna continued. “My smile has grown. I have grown to love, love, love, love this new extended family that I have come to embrace, and they love me too. And I couldn't ask for a better group of people.”

Dare to Dream

When we’re back at the office and everyone is finished with their pizza, we go through the awards. Yolanda gets a hat for completing 25 miles. A dozen runners get medals from the 5k the group completed last weekend. A young man named Patrick gets honored for completing his fifth run, and just like many other BoMF runners, his eyes are set on the future.

“I've always had a dream to run a marathon,” Patrick tells me. That’s the power of this program. It gives people who have been faced with so many barriers permission to dream. To elevate their expectations of themselves. And if you believe you can run a marathon, you’ll believe you can stay sober, get a job, turn your life into whatever you want it to be. It all starts with the first mile.

I pass by encampments of homeless people every day on my commute to work and it's easy to "otherize" the people who live in those tents by the freeway onramp. The good that Back on My Feet does for its participants is clear, but the less obvious benefit is the one it can offer to volunteers. After spending just one evening with Patrick and Yolanda and Russell, I saw them as people. Movement and conversation quickly broke down the barrier between the housed and the houseless. The only thing separating us is a stroke of bad luck or a couple poor decisions. I'm so glad Back on My Feet gave me the opportunity to meet these people and I hope that with the program's help they'll be standing tall again soon.

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