At the beginning line of the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco final June, flour tortillas are flying, and runners are getting ready to make the annual 12Okay pilgrimage from the Bay Bridge to the Pacific Ocean. Heading to our assigned corral, I spot just a few racers rolling kegs and 1 completely bare however for his scant fringe skirt. A man standing proper beside me snags a tortilla and sends it skyward once more. The beginning countdown begins and ends, however we barely transfer.
When the mass of our bodies loosens up, the tortilla winger—I’ll name him Jon*—darts to a gap. I comply with shut, hoping to stick with him. That’s why I’ve come. This is my first race with Back on My Feet, a corporation that makes use of working as a catalyst for homeless rehabilitation. The thought working group might change somebody’s life doesn’t appear far-fetched to me—with out mine, I’m undecided I might survive elevating my children. For a decade, I’ve been assembly some subset of ten ladies most mornings for a five-to-ten-mile jaunt. The working itself is basically irrelevant of our predawn collective, and I think about that the identical holds true for the homeless people who change into rapidly folded into their Back on My Feet tribe.
I got here to Bay to Breakers to fulfill the Back on My Feet contingent, anticipating to do a mellow walk-jog—I’d take my “real” run later. But Jon, whom I’d met per week earlier on my first morning run with the Back on My Feet crew, is match, and solely 23, and his tempo exhibits it. The run was removed from mellow. This turned out to be the primary of my many misjudgments concerning the Back on My Feet people. Pushing myself to maintain up, my glutes burned as I climbed the Fell Street hill and at last entered Golden Gate Park, round mile 4. Jon ultimately slowed barely, however nearing the seashore on the seven-mile mark, he sprinted off. We reunited on the end line, sharing a salty embrace.
He was beaming. “I kicked it to the finish,” Jon stated proudly. In my clammy tank, the ocean air rapidly chilled me, and I wished a heat bathe. The crowds dashed my hopes that we’d discover the remainder of the group, and we hadn’t set a gathering spot—so my plan was to stroll a bit after which name an Uber. I didn’t know the place Jon was heading. Are shelters even open noon on Sunday? I didn’t ask, anxious about making him uncomfortable. After leaving him there, I questioned all day about how he was faring.
Back on My ft was based in Philadelphia in 2007 by serial entrepreneur Anne Mahlum, then 26 and aimless, after she ran previous a gaggle of homeless males and later dropped right into a shelter to ask among the people to hitch her on a run. Today, the group has chapters in 12 cities, together with Austin, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and greater than 6,000 homeless people have participated thus far. (To recruit new members, Back on My Feet staffers go to shelters and pitch the idea.) The San Francisco chapter launched in 2016 and is the most recent of the bunch. The thought behind this system is to harness the camaraderie of a working group, enhance that with particular person help like job leads and interview prep, and ultimately transition the members from the streets to extra steady residing.
A easy incentive scheme underpins this system: The extra individuals stick to the working, the extra assist they get. After 2 consecutive runs, members get brand-new trainers and garments. If they full 90 % of the thrice-weekly runs for a month, they enter the “Next Steps” section, which brings a caseworker who helps define a plan for securing work and housing. Caseworkers leap in to assist nevertheless is important—whether or not which means chasing a misplaced pockets, transporting purchasers to the DMV, paying the safety deposit on an residence, or securing a recent provide of disposable contact lenses. (Jon’s lenses had been in his eyes for 4 months when he first confirmed 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. begin time for the group runs is intentional—jobs demand equally inflexible self-discipline. For job connections, Back on My Feet leverages companions like Safeway, Marriott International, and Stripe, that are open to hiring certified candidates.
San Francisco badly wants initiatives like Back on My ft. As of this writing, the present waitlist for a shelter mattress is 1,131 folks lengthy. Despite many years of focused and varied initiatives, the road inhabitants stays the highest per capita among the many nation’s largest cities. In the 1980s, San Francisco constructed emergency shelters and soup kitchens and bought low-cost resorts for momentary housing. Next got here “multi-service centers,” a beyond-shelters method emphasizing intensive wraparound social companies. In 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom carried out the controversial “Care Not Cash,” program, redirecting funds to create 3,000 new housing models. Currently, the main focus is on constructing housing and the Online Navigation and Entry (ONE) System, a single database for all outreach to streamline the monitoring and triage of homeless people into social companies and shelter. Despite such a spread of approaches, 7,500 San Franciscans are homeless.
I initially assumed that Back on My Feet’s magic lies within the individualized method to overcoming boundaries. I figured that needed to be the reason for the way roughly 500 of its individuals have discovered work and 300 have secured housing. But Cricket Miller, the group’s San Francisco program director, insists that the true energy lies with the working group. The members kind friendships with one another and construct confidence as their mileage will increase. Their interactions with volunteers additionally assist restore a way 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’ solely human interplay comes from the social companies system. “It’s nice to be around regular people.”
The Wednesday earlier than Bay to Breakers, I had proven up at 5:45 a.m. to a vacant lot within the Tenderloin neighborhood. I stepped over a chain-link fence to hitch a circle of about 15 folks. It was my first time volunteering, which entails becoming a member of for the morning run. Many members and volunteers greeted me with a hug. This working group is one in all 2 that the group sponsors within the metropolis; every have assembly spots located near a number of shelters. During warm-ups, I scanned the faces. Who right here is homeless? I imagined it could be apparent, however with virtually all of us decked out in working gear, it was almost unattainable to inform.
I headed off with the three-mile group. A slight man named Matthew jogged beside me and shared that he had been accepted right into a natural-foods cooking faculty and would possibly strive a GoFundMe marketing campaign to lift his tuition. It was round this time that 4 American ladies had superior to the U.S. Open finals, so we additionally talked tennis. Not solely is he a participant, however he’s additionally knowledgeable tennis umpire who has officiated matches, even on the U.S. Open. Three months later, whereas connecting on Facebook with one other volunteer, I got here throughout a hyperlink to Matthew’s GoFundMe marketing campaign. In his plea for funds, he described himself as an “invisible homeless person,” which means you wouldn’t guess he’s homeless after assembly him. He’s proper. I’d mistakenly assumed throughout our dialog that he was a volunteer. I discovered later that Back on My Feet had assisted him to find his present job as a dishwasher in a tech firm lunchroom.
Back within the empty lot, we stretched, then huddled up, our arms tight round each other. We went round answering the query of the day—what did we hope to strive earlier than the tip of the month? A black-haired man in glasses stated mochi. I urged cooking Thai meals. For Jon, Barry’s Bootcamp. The wannabe chef stated acupuncture. Then Kahtan, a member who appeared to know everybody, 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, trying like he would possibly cry. “I’m really back on my feet.” He broke right into a crooked smile. “Corny, I know, but I can’t tell my story without those words.” Later within the week, he was shifting into an residence.
Running collectively within the weeks following Bay to Breakers, I slowly discovered components of Jon’s backstory. Before Back on My Feet, he’d by no means been a runner, however he performed highschool basketball. He’d come to San Francisco final yr on a bus from Oklahoma City. He was homeless there, too. Jon got here figuring out he’d initially be on the streets, however a relative advised him that San Francisco had sturdy social companies. Growing up, he attended 9 completely different colleges. “Military dad?” I requested. “I wish,” Jon stated quietly. “Foster homes.”
In June, he’d maxed out his allotted 180 days on the Lark-Inn, the youth shelter the place he was residing. To keep away from the road whereas awaiting a probable housing possibility, Jon went to Texas to stick with his dad for just a few weeks. “Which isn’t a good situation, but I didn’t have another option,” he defined. While there, Jon missed a key deadline for the two-year transitional housing alternative he hoped for. But Miller, who additionally acts as a caseworker, intervened and satisfied the correct particular person to offer him a break and hire him the place anyway. Jon returned from Texas and excitedly advised the group that he had sponsored housing for 2 years. “That’s all I need,” he stated confidently. “I’m at City College. I can walk onto the basketball team. Then I’ll transfer to a four-year,” he stated.
With Miller’s assist, Jon had created a résumé and lined up a number of job interviews, together with 1 for a part-time place overlaying the graveyard desk shift at 24 Hour Fitness and as a clerk within the team-sports part of native retailer Sports Basement. He bought each. His City College education turned out to be dearer than he anticipated, so Jon might solely swing 1 course this semester, a primary literature and writing class. He wanted the 2nd job to cowl hire and college. He paid the preliminary $2,000 faculty tuition in money, and when his subsequent paycheck comes, he’ll pay the final $800.
Huddled up after a current run, Jon stood beside a younger man with a speech obstacle who was too new to have been issued his working gear but. Jon acknowledged him from the youth shelter. “You’ll see—now that you’re in gateway housing, it gets much better,” he reassured him. The query of the day: What is one thing we really feel grateful for? “Coffee,” Jon exclaimed. He wanted espresso to make it by means of his new graveyard shift at 24 Hour Fitness.
The following Wednesday, I used to be ecstatic listening to Jon animatedly describing his nights on the gymnasium. “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 stated. But after I requested how he was faring in his new place, his voice went flat. “It’s OK,” he stated. It was 1 room, and Jon was getting a roommate, which was inflicting stress since his night time job requires off-hours sleeping. Transitioning out of the shelter is commonly 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 2 miles from our run assembly spot. He used to simply roll away from bed and step out the door, however with the space and his loopy schedule, he’s not working as usually. This is 1 unavoidable actuality of the Back on My Feet mannequin—as soon as members are “back on their feet,” the precise working can generally fall by the wayside. But Jon confirmed up proper on time final Wednesday. “I had to push it, running, to get here,” he stated with a smile.
*Some people’ names have been modified to respect their privateness.