Success Stories — Yes, There Are Some

Running manPeople experiencing homelessness are all over the news, and it’s too easy to feel hopeless and discouraged about the overwhelming amount of need in every corner of the nation. And then a bright ray of meaningful progress shines from the gloomy prospect. Back on My Feet (BOMF) is a super-organized, super-regimented running-based program for helping people reenter the world of the employed and the housed.

It appears to be a mixture of boot camp and Life College, and there are chapters in several U.S. cities. Philosophically, BOMF seems tuned into the ancient wisdom expressed in the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” BOMF is not the place to get a bowl of soup or a blanket, but it just might be the place to get a new life.

Building self-sufficiency is the name of the game, and the building blocks are confidence, strength, and self-esteem. The nonprofit organization’s self-description talks about teamwork and leadership, equality, respect, and discipline. And, of course, it’s not for everybody. BOMF is not the answer for a mentally ill, chronically homeless person who has been on the streets for a decade.

But for someone who is physically healthy and alert enough to benefit from education, it sounds like a dream come true. Participants have to make a commitment and get up early in the morning. BOMF teams are formed at homeless shelters, they go out running three times a week, and many of these energetic, determined achievers enter marathons. They attend financial literacy sessions and finish up their high school education through GED if they don’t already have a diploma. They collect letters of recommendation.

Through the Next Steps program, they connect with various agencies that have the power to move lives forward. The organization is so thorough, it collects donations of suits, shirts, ties, and other necessary business-type clothing for participants to wear to job interviews.

What happens next? In most cases, a degree of success the person might not have been able to imagine. According to the BOMF website,

On average across chapters, BOMF has a success rate of over 50 percent in helping members move their lives forward; this metric is a testament to the efficacy and sustainability of the program.

For more revealing statistics, let’s look at the BOMF blog that tells us that the Philadelphia chapter alone has 59 formerly homeless members who have obtained housing, 73 members who have enrolled in either school or job training programs, and 97 members who have gotten jobs. Via the Baltimore chapter, 48 entered training or re-education, 57 have found jobs, and 21 have found housing.

The website doesn’t go into detail about what the jobs are, or how close they come to providing an actual living wage, but even if some of these folks are still stalled at the level of the working poor, that’s better than being unemployed. In the world of work, it’s always been axiomatic that it’s easier to find a new job if you’re already employed than to find a job if you’re not working. So any job is a move in the right direction. In fact, it may be true now more than ever. I’ve heard that nowadays potential employers only want to take applications from, or schedule interviews with, people who are already working.

The Philadelphia Inquirer says there are about 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Another source says there are 5,000 homeless children in Philadelphia, and that’s not even counting grownups. Without attempting to determine the exact number, let’s just say, thousands. So, when Philadelphia BOMF and its Next Steps program succeed in getting 59 people housed, a pessimist might be tempted to say, “A mere drop in the bucket. What is that, compared to thousands in need?”

But an optimist would say, “Hot damn!” Because these people who have joined up with BOMF and fulfilled the expectations will probably stay housed. They probably will not wind up in the revolving-door syndrome, in and out of shelters. This will probably stick.

As long as we’re in the area, here’s a magnificent Philadelphia story reported by Christine Olley. The subject of this profile is Nikki Johnson-Huston, who spent part of her childhood in homeless shelters with her alcoholic mother, then later blew a great opportunity by flunking out of college, and still managed to turn her life around. Eventually she earned three degrees and is now an attorney for the city, and a volunteer with Project H.O.M.E.


Source: “The Back on My Feet Program,” BackonMyFeet.org, 11/15/10
Source: “Once homeless, city attorney tells her story to inspire others,” Philly.com, 12/04/10
Image by esbjorn2 (Esbjorn Jorsater), used under its Creative Commons license.