View from
The Center

Philadelphia’s Homeless Are Finding New Hope Thanks to This Organization

Image via Back on My Feet

Now a year has passed from that day at St. John’s, and all Kreuzburg can think about is running and the effect it’s had on his life.  

It was the first Sunday in May. Just before 7:30 in the morning, Verne Kreuzburg left one of the many houses in Philadelphia where he used to get high on crystal meth. The drug had taken over his life, leaving him homeless and forever focused on his next high. To him, this was just another morning of some unknown day in an unknown year.

But in Philadelphia, the first Sunday in May is a major event for the competitive and the aspiring-tough. They train all year for it. It’s the day of the Broad Street Run, an event promoters call “the Largest 10-Mile Road Race in the USA.”

And Kreuzberg wandered along the race route, beside the masses of runners, in his disconnected, euphoric state.

“How can they do that? How can they run that far?” he remembered asking himself.

He’d wondered the same thing about the smaller groups of runners he’d seen on another lost morning, sweating in their thin, bright attire and controlling their breath. Little did Kreuzberg know that this would become the sport to save his life.

Back then, Kreuzberg had never heard of Back on My Feet.

About a year ago, two representatives of the organization approached Kreuzberg while he stayed at St. John’s Hospice, a Philadelphia men’s homeless shelter run by the Catholic church. They asked him if he would be up for going on morning runs to get his life back on track

“I thought why not? My sport of choice when I was younger was swimming, and I was used to training for that. So I did it,” said Kreuzburg.

Back on My Feet is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering people who are homeless to re-enter society through running. Since its founding by Anne Mahlum in Philadelphia in 2007, Back on My Feet has expanded to 12 chapters nationwide, and engaged 100,000 volunteers and homeless people in the process.

Now a year has passed from that day at St. John’s, and all Kreuzburg can think about is running and the effect it’s had on his life.  

“Running,” he said, “is one of the only things for me where the past doesn’t matter. All that matters is moving forward.”

It has allowed him to set goals and plan for the future.

“I try to apply these principles to the rest of my life,” said Kreuzburg.

This is exactly the goal of Back on My Feet’s program model. The organization seeks to restore an individual’s confidence, strength and self-esteem before taking the next step in recovery. After referral from one of its representatives, an individual must commit to run 90% of the mornings when the group does—5:30AM, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at four locations in the city—for 30 days. Once this is complete, they apply for Back on My Feet’s Next Steps program, a more catered approach that offers everything from classes in financial literacy to aid with housing and mental health.

“The support system at Back on My Feet is amazing,” said Kreuzburg.

Cathryn Sanderson, executive director of Back on My Feet in Philadelphia says the program is designed to instill commitment and create a community.

“The running represents a commitment that I’m going to physically move my life forward,” she said.

The community is forged by the connections made between the homeless members and many volunteers that come out every morning to run.

“When I’m running alongside you, it sends the message that I’m with you,” said Sanderson.

With the bond realized, many incredible relationships are born as people open up to each other, no matter their individual circumstance.

Valerie Johnson, a volunteer at Back on My Feet for a year, said many of the homeless people she’s encountered depend on these relationships, relationships forged on early mornings year-round while most of the City is still fast asleep.

“There are certain members who expect you to be here and know what days you usually come out, or they’ll ask you,” she said.

Johnson only runs one morning a week, but the connections she’s made motivate her to come out every time.

“It’s 5 o’clock and you’re like: ‘Well, I don’t really want to’, but then you remember this person’s counting on me because they asked me to come out, or that person’s recovering from an injury and needs someone to run slowly with.”

The current format offers a quality experience for those lucky enough to be the 100 to 160 new members the organization tries to recruit each year. But even Sanderson admits, “a lot of growth is necessary” to keep up with the trend of homelessness in Philadelphia.

Despite growing at a lower rate compared to the previous year, volunteers still found more overall homeless in the city during their annual count than in 2017. On a national scale in 2017, an estimated  553,742 people experienced homelessness on any given night. The number of unsheltered homeless individuals increased 9.4%.

“Right now, we’re in the phase of strategizing our next steps forward,” said Sanderson.

These next steps will broaden Back on My Feet’s scope to include more teams for morning runs across the City. 

Each morning run starts with stretching, a team prayer, and an icebreaker activity. Every member and volunteer introduces himself or herself, says the distance they plan to run or walk for the day—between one and three miles—and on this morning, and states his or her proudest achievement.

“My proudest achievement is to have raised my kids,” said one member.

Another follows with his achievement of running a half marathon.

“I’m proudest for my sobriety,” said Kreuzburg.

Other than one relapse, he has remained clean in the year since running with Back on My Feet.

“Addiction is like that one guy at the end of the party that never leaves your house, or the guy at the bar that stays even though it’s last call,” said Kreuzburg.

It is a disease he knows he will battle for the rest of his life—but one that does get easier as time passes. He admits getting reminded of his struggle when running past old places he used to party or get high. He also mentioned that he sometimes struggles to live in the moment. But in those moments when he can, something is clear.

In running past these old places full of bad memories, he is both literally and figuratively leaving them behind for a better future. And all of it started from one decision: when he agreed to go on that first 5AM run through Philadelphia’s sleepy streets.

Kreuzburg looks forward to his future.“Broken crayons can still color,” he said.