I’ve always been of the mind, that no good comes from anyone being left to their own devices with too much idle time on their hands.
Undeniably, the mere circumstance of being homeless extracts a great toll, on ones’ mental and physical well being. The initiative below (USA Today) addresses a more fundamental needs in all of us. Discipline, accomplishment, self worth and positive long term health benefits.
WASHINGTON — Torrey Brockman is glad to be running for himself instead of running from the police.
An alcoholic and drug addict, Brockman, 35, checked into a drug rehabilitation center and found Back on My Feet, a running group for the homeless.
For four months, he has been up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5:45 a.m. to run with 15 other men on the streets of downtown D.C., past the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court.
“It’s different being on this side because running from police, that first mile wasn’t anything,” he says, laughing. “It’s after you do that first mile, that’s the hard part, trying to get your wind back. But now that I’m doing 2, 3 miles, it’s getting better.”
Back on My Feet is a support group for the homeless, many of them on drugs and alcohol, that is meant to help them get their lives in order by instilling discipline and improving their health and self-esteem.
The program, which began in Philadelphia, is going national. It started groups in shelters and transitional housing in Baltimore last year and Washington and Boston this year. It plans to be in Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Minneapolis before 2012.
The program began three years ago when marathoner Anne Mahlum regularly ran past a homeless shelter in Philadelphia and began talking to the guys hanging out in the front.
“I enjoyed talking to them,” Mahlum says. Their sarcasm and wit reminded her of her father, who struggled with alcohol, drug and gambling addictions.
She decided to invite the guys to run with her and called the shelter about starting a group. It started with nine runners. Today, Back on My Feet has about 600 participants.
Mahlum says that as members complete a run, they feel a sense of accomplishment. Success is rewarded. Members run with volunteers and a coach, who charts their increasing mileage and awards prizes such as running clothes, medals and watches. That boosts their self-esteem even more, Mahlum says.
“The organization uses running to help people to succeed,” she says.
‘A lot of positive effects’
Those who show up 90% of the time in the first 30 days get a stipend of up to $1,250 to be used for rental deposits on apartments or to pay for furniture, classes, transit cards or clothes for a job. The stipend goes to the merchants, not the participant. The money comes from corporate and private donations, and shoe stores donate the sneakers.
More than half of those who have started the program are still participating or have left because they found jobs or homes, the group says.
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says it’s hard to measure Back on My Feet’s effectiveness, because it is not a typical program designed to house or employ the homeless.
Roman says if the group boosts self-esteem, that’s a good thing.
“Homelessness is a debilitating experience for people, and it takes a lot of energy to get out of homelessness,” she says. “Running is not the solution to end homelessness, but programs like this have a lot of positive effects.”
It is a challenge to work with the homeless, says Sandi Maro, a Back on My Feet vice president. “You do see your heart broken,” she says.
Cory Walker, 26, says he’s an example of the struggle homeless addicts face that running alone can’t cure.
Walker was the captain of his Back on My Feet team at a rehab center in Boston. He accumulated 100 miles by running up to four days a week and finished a 5-mile race in 39 minutes.
Then, he says, three weeks ago he relapsed. Walker, an electrician apprentice, was installing a fan at his boss’s house when he found a bottle of painkillers on a nightstand and stole several pills. He confessed and got booted from his rehab center and from Back on My Feet.
Once on the street, he says, he realized he had two choices: Fall deeper into his drug habit or find a new rehab center and start again.
Within a few days, he says, he got into a new center. He credits the lessons he learned from running with Back on My Feet.
“I have a new mentality,” Walker says. “If I fall, trip or stumble, I’m not going to give up. … That’s not an option anymore.”
Brockman says the motivation he gets from running with Back on My Feet is helping him get his life in order.
He says he started drinking and taking PCP two years ago after his mother died. “She was my backbone, and after she died, I just started experimenting,” he says.
He was working in maintenance at a hospital and living with his older brother, but he says he was neglecting his four children and his relationship with his brother suffered.
His wake-up call came five months ago when his oldest child, Tinya Ford, then 8, said she wished he’d get help. A few days later, he was in Clean and Sober Streets in Washington.
He says he has gone with the other runners to parties that don’t serve alcohol, he’s considering going to culinary school, and he’s rebuilding his relationship with his children.
“I’m tired of smoking and drinking,” he says. “Every time I do, I end up fighting or in trouble. I need order in my life. So far, this has been giving me order.”