Running Program Uses Goal-Setting To Help Homeless

There are many programs to help the homeless: Shelters, soup kitchens and job assistance programs. Officials in Charlotte, N.C., are trying something else: Running programs.

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Cities usually have an array of services to combat homelessness. These include shelters, soup kitchens, job assistance programs. But there's a new trend in helping the homeless: running.

Greg Collard of member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, reports on how running has changed the lives for some of the city's homeless people.

GREG COLLARD, BYLINE: You might wonder, how do you get the homeless interested in running? Well, here's a big enticement: free shoes. That grabbed the attention of Matthew Hoffman.

MATTHEW HOFFMAN: The sign said, you know, come four times and, you know, get a pair of running shoes, you know? And it's a really selfish mentality when I think about it now, but, you know, it was a very naturally selfish mentality.

COLLARD: Many homeless runners say that's what attracted them to Charlotte's program called Running Works. It's organized by Meredith Dolhare.

MEREDITH DOLHARE: At first, it's all about the gear, and then they stay because it's about the camaraderie and the family and the team. And, you know, and then they realize there's more to it. So that's pretty cool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Stay together, guys. Do the geese thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on, John.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLARD: The program has about 30 participants. They run three times a week and compete in weekend road races, mostly five and 10Ks. Matthew Hoffman is an exception.

HOFFMAN: My 50K was horrible.

COLLARD: That's 31 miles.

HOFFMAN: I did it 5:45, five hours, 45. And I wanted to do it in about five hours.

COLLARD: We run a few miles through downtown Charlotte as Matthew gives the short version of his story. He's 34 and stays at a shelter. Matthew dropped out of the University of North Carolina. A series of part-time jobs followed. Six years ago, he lost a job. A roommate kicked him out. He's been in and out of homelessness ever since. For a while, a friend let him stay in his stepmother's condo, but she didn't know about it.

HOFFMAN: When she found out, I, of course, had to leave.

COLLARD: Being homeless took its toll. He became bitter. Matthew's hometown was booming, but his life wasn't. And then a year ago, Matthew saw that sign for free shoes. In February, Matthew finished that 50K.

HOFFMAN: Which is apparently an incredible feat for somebody that's not homeless, much less somebody who's battling homelessness while they're training.

COLLARD: Something clicked. He started applying for jobs. He found one at a Subway restaurant. Minimum wage, but that didn't matter.

HOFFMAN: Dealing with the public and getting to serve others and help to make their lives more enjoyable and also to create a product that they enjoy is really something that does give me great satisfaction.

COLLARD: And then Matthew ran off. He had to get to work. A similar program called Back On My Feet started in Philadelphia six years ago. It's expanded to 10 cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Charlotte's Running Works program is a year old. Again, director Meredith Dolhare.

DOLHARE: Originally, people thought I was a little crazy, but I always say, you know, what do you get from running?

COLLARD: Discipline, confidence, self-respect, she says. The runners get gently used to high-end shoes. They also have access to shirts, shorts and sweatpants. They also earn bus passes.

But to get those bus passes, runners take a mandatory life skills session. They address topics like anger management and goal setting. Today, it's relationships.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So raise our awareness when we're doing that because that's actually a disconnect.

COLLARD: Many people here have made impulsive decisions. They need coping skills, like 42-year-old Tom Carter.

TOM CARTER: I'll just quit my job, you know? I mean, I like working if it's a good situation, but, you know, you got to deal with a lot of stuff. You know, when you worry, you've got to deal with personalities. It can be stressful.

COLLARD: It would be great if everyone can get a job and be independent. But if they don't, Dolhare says these sessions impart lessons they can use every day, one step at a time. For NPR News, I'm Greg Collard in Charlotte.

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