Up Congress Avenue and around the Capitol, runners move through the pre-dawn air.
Their rubber soles thunk softly with every stride, gliding over asphalt slickened by the street washers, through white halos of mist beneath streetlamps and past people sleeping on sidewalks.
Many of them are teachers, sales clerks, musicians, firefighters, bankers. They run to stay fit and healthy, to socialize, to sort through problems marching through their heads.
But when some of them unlace their shoes, they don’t head to the office, or even home. They’ve finished the one hour that resembles normal life. They run to find purpose, stability and a better future.
The morning streets serve as the great equalizer for these early risers. When they are pounding the pavement, they are the same. They are all runners.
On a sunny Saturday in January, men and women living at two downtown homeless shelters gather at a running store to pick out brand new shoes, pants, jackets, T-shirts and socks.
They’ll use this gear often in coming weeks, as members of the newest chapter of Back On My Feet, a national nonprofit that uses running as a way for homeless people to gain self-sufficiency.
Back On My Feet recruits members from homeless shelters, not the streets. In Austin, it works with the Salvation Army and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. The members pledge to run with the group at 5:30 a.m. three days a week.
Roseann Marfitt, 46, cries as she laces up her new shoes. “I can feel the shift as I transition from victim to self-supporting,” she says, and then explains that she’s been in a violent relationship the past five years. “This is what I needed … this means more than you could ever possibly know.”
Running, she is sure, will provide the therapy she needs. “I believe we help ourselves heal, but I believe there are people who help us along the way,” she says.
Also picking up clothing is Lauren Reliford, 31, who just moved to Austin from Gary, Ind., where she grew up the daughter of a steel mill worker. She had hoped to stay with a friend while she looked for work, but those plans fell through. She turned to the Salvation Army for shelter.
“I cried my first night in there,” she says.
Like many of the others, Reliford has never been a runner, but when she saw the flyer for Back On My Feet, she decided to come. “I knew I needed something to do,” she says. “I didn’t need to sit there and be idle thinking about what would have been.”
In all, 42 people pick up gear. Afterward, some of them go with volunteers to the Domain, where Back On My Feet unveils its program to supporters and donors with a celebratory breakfast at a hotel.
At 5:30 a.m. two days later, the new recruits, along with more than a dozen volunteers, huddle in a downtown parking lot in the dark, preparing to run a mile — the first of many they will cover in coming months.
They don’t know what the road ahead holds.
“Nobody runs alone. No pace is too slow,” Paul Solis, program director of the Austin chapter, tells them. “This program is not a handout. We’re all here to push. We’re a team. We’re a family. This is the first day of many days of teamwork.”
They form a circle and then work their way around, introducing themselves one by one.
“I’m Roy. I’m so excited, I’m speechless.”
“I’m Max. I’m looking to challenge myself.”
And on and on.
They are here for different reasons. Richard Tilton, 49, wants to get in better shape. “I’m lazy when it comes to running, but if I’ve got people to run with, I’ll be good,” he says.
Yolanda Lynch, 40, wants to meet new people. “When you live in a shelter, you tend to put up walls,” she says.
When the introductions end, they stack their hands one on top of another, and Solis leads them in what will become a group tradition.
“Who woke us up this morning?” he asks.
“God,” they answer in unison. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Then they start down the sidewalk, fanning out and taking the first steps in their new lives as runners.
Halfway across the Ann Richards Congress Avenue bridge, most have already slowed to a walk.
Anne Mahlum, 32, created Back On My Feet almost by accident. As a teenager growing up in North Dakota, she watched her father’s drug, alcohol and gambling addictions tear her family apart. She coped by running.
“Running has always made me feel like I can do anything,” she says.
While living in Philadelphia in 2007, she ran past a homeless shelter nearly every day. One day, some of the men there waved at her, and she started to build a rapport. They reminded her of her father.
“I soon realized I was cheating them. Why did I get to be the runner and they had to be the homeless guys?” she says.
She persuaded the director of the shelter to let her start a running club. She brought the handful of interested residents new shoes and running clothes donated by a local store. She made them sign a contract, promising to attend three mornings a week. They had to come with a positive attitude; they had to respect their teammates.
“I demanded nothing but excellence and no excuses,” she says. “It was a 100 percent commitment. Those were the rules.”
They showed up. They tracked their miles. Slowly, some of them changed the way they saw themselves. “It was almost as if they were waiting for someone to expect something greater from them,” Mahlum says. They ran for the same reasons anyone might run: “to try something new, to get healthy, to meet people and to see how far they could go.”
With the Austin launch in January, the Philadelphia-based Back On My Feet now operates 10 chapters; the others are in Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New York City. The nonprofit provides coaching, financial aid, job training and access to employment opportunities to runners who meet their goals.
Staffers screen prospective participants, conducting background checks and interviewing applicants. Participants must stay clean and sober, and while a criminal record doesn’t mean someone can’t participate, sex offenders are barred.
After 30 days, everyone who attends 90 percent of the morning runs moves into the “Next Steps” phase. They can attend training sessions on resume writing, interviewing and financial literacy. They can apply for the first $500 of up to $2,000 in financial aid for expenses such as tools for a job, certifications or taking care of outstanding fines.
“If we try to help everybody, we’re going to fail,” Mahlum says. “We have to help people who want us to help them. Do we get that right every time? No.”
About a quarter of participants drop out in the first month, Mahlum says. But according to the nonprofit’s national statistics, 46 percent go on to get jobs or independent housing during the six- to eight-month program. About 850 people have gotten jobs through Back On My Feet since 2008, she says.
“It’s more than working out and staying fit. It’s all about moving forward in life,” Mahlum says of the privately funded program, which operates on a $6.5 million national budget.
A month into the program, Richard Tilton, 49, and his brother John, 52, are still showing up for pre-dawn runs. The group meets in a parking lot across from the Salvation Army and runs loops through downtown.
The two didn’t plan to move to Austin. They were working for a moving company, they say, and one day the driver they worked for unloaded their belongings on the street and left them without a way back to Arkansas. Without a place to sleep, they ended up at the Salvation Army.
“It’s noisy. I’m not a group-liver,” Richard Tilton says. “Me and my brother, whoever gets a job first, we’re out of there. I’m tired, man.”
Richard has been working with a friend, making deliveries between Home Depot and construction sites. He’s missed two runs because of work, but they are excused absences. When he shows up, he sometimes walks instead of runs. “Monday is just a bad day for me,” he says.
He’s been at the Salvation Army since Nov. 29. He leaves each morning and spends the day on the street, filling out a few job applications. He returns for dinner each evening, takes a shower, watches television and sleeps on a bunk in a crowded, noisy room.
Nearly everyone who joins the pre-run circle in an empty parking lot next to the shelter can tell a similar story. As they run, they share their lives.
Reliford, the woman from Indiana, talks about her love of classical music. She knows how to play a violin, she says, and has a son named Amadeus who still lives with her parents in Indiana. She wants to get stable enough to move him to Austin. She hoped that would take a month, but now she knows it will take longer. Still, she’s working now, as a part-time food server at a staffing agency.
“It’s just the beginning. Once you have a job it’s easier to get another one,” Reliford says.
As the members tick off the miles, they earn rewards — a wristband, a hat, running watch and sport bag. They also gain confidence.
“Running teaches you there’s no shortcut,” Mahlum says. “Sometimes a run is going to be hard. You’ve got to at least get your butt out of bed.”
But the physical part of it, she says, is almost secondary, something that’s true for many runners. It’s the mental part that drew her in, inspiring her to start the program.
“When I run, I think about the kind of person I am, the choices I’ve made and if I’ve done anything I’m not proud of,” she says. “All that negative stuff surfaces. It’s cleansing in that way.”
In February, Reliford adds a new part-time job at a call center, selling magazine subscriptions. She moves into the workers’ dorm, where she gets more privacy and more freedom. She also pays rent, about $50 a week. She’s proud of that.
“To be down here (at the shelter), I get down, but it’s so short-lived,” she says. “I’ve always been a self-help person. If you allow yourself to be angry, you get caught in a loop of self-degradation.”
Still, she wants better.
With the help of the book “What Color is Your Parachute,” she decides she wants to work in hospitality. A job in a hotel would be perfect. She’s good with people. Positive. Using tips she picked up in a Back On My Feet session, she writes a resume, describing the position she wants as “guest happiness deputy.”
Walking on a downtown street one morning with the running group, she points to the Hyatt Place hotel, one of Back On My Feet’s employment partners. “I’d be a great addition to their team,” she says. “I just really want to work there. No matter how long it takes.”
She’d start as a housekeeper, then work her way up to the front desk, she says. Eventually, she’d work as an events planner.
In March, she finds out she’ll get her first big chance — an interview at that very hotel. “Back On My Feet hooked me up with the Hyatt, and they’re flirting with me,” she says.
She’s so excited, she programs the hotel’s number into her phone under the name “Best job in the whole world.” She picks out a black sleeveless dress, a brooch and pretty shoes for the interview from Dress for Success, a nonprofit that provides professional clothing for disadvantaged women.
After the first interview, though, she’s unsure if she made the cut. But in the coming weeks she’s called back for a second interview, then a third.
Finally, at the end of the month, the words “Best job in the whole world” pop up on her buzzing phone. She’s got the full-time job.
As the weeks pass, the group changes.
They’re becoming part of a community where all that matters is the road in front of them, and steady footsteps are the only way to move forward. Running is an equalizer, one that strengthens the muscles, lungs and soul of all people, regardless of circumstance.
But attendance wanes. Sometimes only a few runners show up. Richard Tilton rarely makes it because he’s working part-time at a recycling plant, but his brother still comes.
“I feel like hell,” John Tilton says one morning. “Guys in the dorm are sicker than dogs and sneezing on everyone.”
In order to stay in the program, members have to check in with case managers at the shelter where they live, and meet weekly with Back On My Feet staffers who track their attendance, mileage and attitude. The group gets a few entries to races around town, and members are encouraged to run or volunteer at one event each month.
One of the biggest goals, says Joe Marruchella, executive director of Back On My Feet Austin, is to help members believe in themselves again. “They’ve been beaten down for so long, and they don’t have anybody in their corner,” he says.
Marruchella, who has 11 marathons under his belt, knows running with a group can help do that. He also knows that because of the instability of the population Back On My Feet works with, more than half of the people who start won’t make it through.
“We look for people with the best chance of success in our program,” he says. “But we are still taking a gamble on everyone who comes with us … It’s an unpredictable population and circumstances change. Members make their own decisions, and they’re not always the ones staffers want them to make.”
Some members drop out after alcohol or drug relapses. They can rejoin, but have to start from the beginning, accruing attendance and miles. Others just quit coming.
As of early July, 18 of the 42 people who started the Austin program in January have gotten a job or housing. The local branch partners with White Lodging, Marriott, Hyatt Place, The Renaissance Hotel Austin, Hyatt Regency, Hunt-Hardin Construction, AT&T, Whole Foods, MHD Enterprises and Towne Park to find jobs for its members.
Participation in Back On My Feet shows employers that applicants are disciplined and will show up for work. “It gives them credentials,” says Randy Allen, communications director at the Salvation Army. “They need opportunity, and that’s what they’re building here. We’re hoping it’s successful enough it becomes a part of our program, a routine.”
But even getting a job doesn’t guarantee success.
One runner in the group made his attendance and landed a job in the warehouse at a company that refurbishes and sells used electronics. Two days later, he quit. The pressure was too much too soon. He’s back with the running group, and staffers are hopeful they can find a better fit.
“It’s hard; you want to see good things happen to them. But it doesn’t always work that way,” Marruchella says. “We’re not a running club. If you’re not willing to do the things to move your life forward, this isn’t for you.”
Reliford starts work in April as a housekeeper at Hyatt Place, where her duties include cleaning community areas like the pool patio and lobby.
She hadn’t realized it at the time, but she’d been running all along with the manager of customer service at the hotel, who is a volunteer at Back On My Feet.
“My first day on the job he hugs me,” Reliford says. “Everyone was like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘We run together.’”
One morning a few weeks after she starts her job, she pins on a race number and lines up at the starting line at a 5-mile run benefitting Back on My Feet. As the starting horn goes off, she jogs slowly forward, alongside 30 other athletes. A few hundred yards in, she slows to a walk, which she maintains most of the way, until she reaches the finish and breaks into a trot again.
“I’m doing way better than I used to. I used to walk all of it,” she says.
Speed doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s moving forward. Back On My Feet, she says, has given her purpose.
“Being homeless, I felt less equal,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was a contributor anymore; I was taking handouts. So I even found myself moving out of people’s way on the sidewalk. Running alongside people helped me feel a lot better because I didn’t feel judged, like I was less.”
Founder Mahlum, who has traveled to Austin for the fundraising run, watches the runners stream past.
“Look at that group out there,” Mahlum says. “You can’t tell which are homeless and which are not.”
By June, Reliford has saved up a few hundred dollars, and is stable enough in her job that she can move out of the shelter. It feels, she says, like escaping Alcatraz.
She spends the first night in her new apartment sleeping on a comforter spread out on the floor. A dozen plastic bags stuffed with clothing, towels and blankets line one wall of the 550-square-foot studio apartment off East Riverside Drive.
“There’s nothing in here yet, and it was the best sleep I’ve had in five months,” she says.
Four representatives of Back On My Feet helped her move, giving her new dishware, kitchen towels, a butterfly-patterned shower curtain and other essentials to fill the empty space. She doesn’t have any furniture yet, but plans to use financial aid from the nonprofit to buy a couch, a table, a bed and some shelves. In a few days, she says, Amadeus will be moving to Austin.
She continues to work at the hotel and plans to apply for a front desk position later this year.
“I’ll be with them for a long time,” she says. “I like working there. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth.”
Back On My Feet, she says, has kept her focused on something besides “woe is me.” “I’ve got people I can depend on,” she says.
On July 15, she’ll serve as official starter at a golf tournament to benefit the group. She continues to walk and run with Back On My Feet, but now she’s an alumni member.
She’s got other goals, too. She plans to take a class in hospitality management next year. She wants a violin. And she wants to keep walking and running.
Only now, the normalcy in her day doesn’t end with the final steps of an early morning workout. She can head home and then on to a steady job.