Downtown Dallas Running Program Hopes to Get the Homeless Back on Their Feet

About 40 homeless people descended on Main Street Garden this morning, beginning just a little before 6. They congregated on the patio of the Lily Pad Cafe; as far as we could tell there were no "bums" in the crowd. These people were midway through their morning run.

The group of homeless and formerly homeless, clad in sneakers and gear provided by Run On, use the park for their early-morning exercise. They're all part of a nonprofit running program called Back On My Feet. They came from The Bridge, the Salvation Army and Dallas LIFE, and toed-off from The Bridge, about half a mile away.

We were invited to join this morning's run earlier this week, when Back On My Feet's Kristen Kouk reached out to us and suggested that perhaps we might like to see the "other" homeless using Main Street Garden. For the past five months, she told us, anywhere from 40 to 100 people gather at dark-thirty Monday, Wednesday and Friday to run. She told us, not just anyone is welcome.

"We work with individuals in the facilities for at least 30 days, so they're in a stable place," she told us. "They have to be in good standing with the shelter and be recommended by their case worker. We work with people who are job-ready, who are about to get their HUD vouchers, who have been in recovery and are ready to move on and move out and use the life skills running will show them."

On this morning's jog, one woman told a volunteer she had lost 20 pounds since she started the program. Another woman, who joined in when she was in transitional housing and has since moved into an apartment, has stayed with the morning jogging program since its inception on Valentine's Day. A volunteer cracked a Rocky joke jogging up the small staircase on the south side of Main Street Garden, and a few runners chimed in, humming the movie's theme song.

Usually each shelter has its own run, but today's journey combined the entire program and included the stop at Main Street Garden to listen to a guest speaker, Jason Soria, who told the story of his descent into addiction and imprisonment -- and how he snapped out of his old lifestyle and qualified for this year's grueling Iron Man competition in Hawaii.

"The same tools and the same mentality that I used to recover, I use in training," Soria told the crowd as the sun began to rise over the skyline.

The Dallas chapter of Back On My Feet launched from the same patch of downtown grass the runners passed this morning. It's the favorite park of program director Lea Velez. "It's simple and perfect," she said.

The program adds three to five members every month and has a waiting list, Velez said. She's noticed a difference in many of the homeless runners as they become closer to each other and continue showing up. "They are vulnerable and they are real human beings," she said. She notices when something is bothering them, which happens from time to time. But, she said, "I see every day those puzzle pieces coming together."

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