Running from homelessness

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After Charles Phillips was shot 13 times with an assault rifle, doctors told him he'd never walk again, and even if he did, he'd limp.

Today, Phillips is running. No, not just the occasional jog. He's run 150 miles in four months, running three times a week.

But while he's defied doctor's predictions, Phillips still has one more hurdle to overcome: He's homeless. It's actually why he started running. At the REST homeless shelter, where Phillips currently lives, there's a unique nonprofit helping the homeless to accomplish their goals through pounding the pavement. Back on My Feet began in Philadelphia, but has now spread all over the country--Washington, D.C., Boston, Baltimore, and now Chicago. Soon, it'll be in Dallas, Atlanta and Minneapolis too. The goal? To get homeless people running, and through the sport, inspire them to change their lives.

Anne Mahlum, founder and president of Back on My Feet, used to pass a homeless shelter every day on her morning run. She found herself making friends with the men who stood outside, and one day, according to the Back on My Feet website, she called the shelter and asked if she could start a running group for residents there.

"Running is such a beautiful metaphor for life," Mahlum said. "Life is about choosing
different roads, and our program teaches the importance of choosing roads
filled with opportunity, hope and happiness."

It's not just about running, though. Running is just the beginning--a path to finding self-confidence and showing people that they can achieve their goals through hard work and determination. It connects their members to social services like housing assistance and workforce development but only after they've earned it by showing dedication to the group.

Since he's started running with Back on My Feet, Phillips says he's felt the drive to create a stable life for himself.

"I'm back in school studying automobile
technology, and I'm working hard for a brighter future," said Phillips on the group's blog. "Just the
wording alone--Back on My Feet--is inspiring. It's something a lot of
people want to be, but that many aren't willing to take the steps to
actually do it. However, since I got back on my feet, I've been
walking, running and doing whatever I can to stay back on my feet."

Last week, we talked about an organization in London that asked homeless
people what they needed and flat out gave it to them, with the
condition that they get coaching on budgeting and life skills from a
mentor. In both programs, it seems it's the community of people that
encourage and inspire people to make changes in their lives, not just
help with their physical needs.

Both of these programs remind me of the constant debate between liberals and conservatives over how to fight poverty. Conservatives often say that poverty is about motivation--that if you're just motivated enough, you can get out of poverty. Liberals claim the opposite--the physical circumstances of poverty are often too much to overcome, even if a person is desperate to succeed.

I don't know about you, but the debate sometimes weighs me down. I get tired of arguing and presenting evidence. While we argue about what causes poverty, almost 90,000 people are homeless in Chicago, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Another half a million live under the poverty line.

It's exciting to see two organizations in different parts of the world rise above the debate and do the important work of actually getting people "back on their feet."

Photo credit: Back on My Feet

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