Combatting homelessness through the power of running — and encouragement

It was frigid in the pre-dawn hours in West Baltimore. An icy breeze swept through a mostly boarded-up neighborhood on North Carey Street. But the atmosphere in Cumberland & Carey Park couldn’t have been warmer.

Men and women in running shoes emerged from the darkness and traded hellos and high-fives. The growing group formed a circle on a dimly lit basketball court. Hugs spread through the shape like a wave through the stands at a ballpark.

“Where else can you show up at 5:30 in the morning and get these kinds of hugs and smiles?” asked 49-year-old Derel Owens, a counselor and barber’s assistant. “Who’s ready to run?”

Forty men and women were off and jogging through Sandtown-Winchester.

Owens, a graduate of a local addiction recovery program, is a volunteer team leader for Back on My Feet, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that, in the words of its mission statement, “combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.”

The national organization encourages men and women who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to take part in regular early-morning group runs as a point of entry to a longer-term program of personal empowerment.

The runs take place three times a week, always at 5:30 a.m., in a dozen cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, New York and Baltimore.

Those who complete 90 percent of the runs over a 30-day span qualify for a program of classes and training designed to provide the kinds of tools and opportunities they will need to return to a stable and productive life — one that includes employment, a place to live and, ideally, a renewed sense of purpose.

The program has grown rapidly.

More than 6,000 homeless or at-risk individuals have run more than half a million miles with Back on My Feet since its founding eleven years ago, and more than two-thirds of those have gone on to find jobs and housing, according to the organization. About 90 percent of that group has maintained their new conditions for at least six months.

In its nearly nine years in Baltimore, the program has served 856 homeless or at-risk individuals at its five sites, helping about 300 find jobs, 130 find housing and 200 to complete a training program or earn a degree.

Owens’ chapter, the Penn North Team, is the newest: Founded at Penn North Recovery, a residential rehabilitation center, it’s the first branch to open in Baltimore since 2010 and the first one in West Baltimore.

Participants say the later classes and training are essential to recovery, but it’s the running — and the positive camaraderie that goes with it — that creates the foundation for change.

Sixty-year-old Pearly Blue III joined Back on My Feet in 2012 after spending years battling heroin addiction and living on the street.

He now lives in a house on Lexington Street, works as a security assistant at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center on Fallsway, owns a car and spends off hours with the grandchildren he says he once neglected.

Blue has run five half-marathons, including the Baltimore Running Festival, and is training for a sixth, the Oldfields Half Marathon and Relay on April 7.

“It’s about the wellness,” he said, clouds of his breath visible in front of his face. “It’s about getting those neurons fired up early in the day. The positive physical feeling just gives you this feeling you can do whatever you set your mind to.

“And it’s about these great people who hold your hand, in so many ways,” he said. “Back on My Feet has been one of the rocks in my life.”

In Baltimore, Back On My Feet has built a healthy momentum at its five sites in the city: the Baltimore Station residential treatment program in South Baltimore, Christopher’s Place Employment Academy on Fallsway, the Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street, the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training on North High Street, and Penn North, the chapter Owens helped launch last September.

“I see this neighborhood, and I don’t see the ‘bad.’ I see the good that is being overshadowed,” he said. “I enjoy helping bring to others what Back On My Feet gave to me.”

The organization served 130 members in Baltimore in 2017, nearly twice as many as the year before; helped 46 gain employment, six more than in 2016; and for the first time raised more than $500,000, through an annual banquet, several running events and hundreds of private and corporate donations.

For those who make it to the “Next Steps” phase, Accenture and PNC Bank donate job-readiness classes and personal finance training, and several corporations with a local presence, including Marriott, have hired graduates.

About half the runners on Friday were volunteers. The group included corporate professionals, a truck driver, a health care professional, a cosmetologist and several students from Loyola University.

The paid staffers on hand included three veteran distance runners: executive director Jackie Range, marketing director Sydney Van Horn and program director Mary Beth Moran. When Asked about their backgrounds, each said she was more interested in discussing the way she now uses the pastime as a way of reaching others.

The women joined Owens in reminding the group that they don’t have to be serious runners to take part: they can choose a one-mile walk, a two-mile run or a three-mile run, and at least one volunteer will stay with each member, no matter his or her pace.

“Sometimes when people want to run with a group, they’re worried about others going faster, or about keeping up, and they can get discouraged,” said Van Horn, 27. “It’s one of our mottoes that we leave no runner behind. We’ll stay with you every step of your journey.”

The encouragement pays off.

Sheena Bailey, 32, struggled with substance abuse for years. She moved in at Penn North seven months ago.

She announced to the circle that she’d completed her first 25 miles. The group cheered and presented her with a ceremonial t-shirt.

“You know how I’ve done it? One mile at a time!” she cried. She held the shirt in the air, and the cheers grew louder.

As she walked along North Fulton, carefully stepping around patches of packed snow, she waxed enthusiastic about the people around her.

“These are my teammates — my new family!” she said.

Shannon Adams, 39, also had reason to celebrate.

Last March, as she battled addiction, she moved in at Penn North with her 10-year-old daughter.

Six months later, out of shape and nervous, she joined Back on My Feet.

Adams told the group she had finished her first five-mile race the previous weekend — and graduated from a training program in community health work at the University of Maryland Medical Center the day before.

They hollered approval.

“I never thought I could run five miles or anything near it,” she said. “But by meeting these small goals one at a time, I’ve gotten confidence I can do new things, and it has definitely transferred to the rest of my life.”

She added that she believed her progress will set a positive standard for her daughter.

As the runners began arriving back at the starting point, they formed a gauntlet on either side of the sidewalk and high-fived teammates as they passed through.

Each circled through the gauntlet again, dancing amid flashing lights to the music of a portable stereo.

They returned to the basketball court, circled up for a set of warm-down stretches, and finally, at Owens’ urging, formed a tight cluster.

Black and white, young and old, employed and in recovery, well-to-do and recently incarcerated, they leaned together in the cold and held their fists in the air.

“On three!” Owens barked.

“Penn North strong!” they cried, and they went their separate ways in the still dark morning.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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