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Running Group Combats Homelessness

Running Group Combats Homelessness

Isolation is regularly sited as one of the worst aspects of being homeless, where those sitting on the streets are walked past and ignored, heightening their sense of disconnect from society. On My Feet uses running to connect the homeless of Perth and Fremantle with a community that embodies self worth and collective purpose.

Perth businessman and On My feet founder Keegan Crage regularly pounds the pavement, not only chasing kilometre or speed goals, but simply “to feel great”. During a long run, a light bulb moment occurred as he ran past many homeless people on his various routes.

“I often see homeless people while out running and I started thinking, if I can feel this good running, why can’t they?” Keegan mused. “The answer is they can, running is pure and basic and all they need is a pair of shoes.”

Identifying factors of a homeless person go beyond the lack of permanent residence with most experiencing mental health issues, low self worth being particularly prominent.

“When you’re homeless, you feel isolated and hopeless, which is born from the fact when you’re homeless people will walk past you and ignore you, or they’ll look away so you can’t help but feel as though you’re invisible,” Keegan explained. “There’s no doubt that these individuals, when they sit on the street, feel completely isolated and as though they’re not a part of the community.”

On the first session in Fremantle last year, with the Mayor of Fremantle and directors of the On My Feet board and sporting greats John Worsfold and John Inverarity standing beside him, Keegan immediately broke down any barriers.

“I had them all in the same running gear, everyone wore the same blue New Balance top, the same shorts and the same socks,” Keegan said. “I said to everyone ‘look around, we’re all equals here, there is no homelessness, we are all runners’.”

It’s not as simple as providing a pair of secondhand shoes, but combined with the consistency and group atmosphere provided by the three weekly sessions (On My feet group meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5.30pm), a sense of purpose develops that is otherwise missing for participants. 

“Once participants have attended 90 percent of sessions over a month, we give them a brand new pair of shoes as a reward then once they get to 50-kilometres of accumulative running we give them a new t-shirt with a different colour logo which says 50-kilometres below it, the same happens for 100-kilometres, 150, 200 and 300,” Keegan said.  “They earn the t-shirts and receive recognition from their running community and in addition, they can wear that t-shirt around with pride and become ambassadors for the program which might encourage others in the same circumstance to look at them as an example of hope.”

Keegan believes the impact of participants returning to shelters and showing others how their lives are changing for the better is far more significant than his own pep talks.

“When a guy turns up to the shelters in a suit, they think something’s up,” Keegan explained. “It’s another thing for one of their comrades who’s been through the same thing showing signs of improved physical and mental well-being.”

Aside from t-shirt incentives, Keegan has created pathways to employment and education for those who demonstrate commitment to the program.

“One thing we say to people at the start is that we’re not here to give you a handout, we’re here to give you a hand up,” Keegan said. “Don’t come to us for food, money or clothes – we will give you something much greater than that which is ultimately a pathway to self-sufficiency.”

Once runners have attended 90 percent of sessions over a period of time, opportunities open up to take on work experience, education programs with organisations such as St John Ambulance and online certificates with various universities.

“In my personal experience as an employer, and I don’t run a big business with 50 staff, but it’s big enough to know that when I hire on skills and I try to change someone’s attitude it almost always ends in a bad result,” Keegan said. “But when I hire on attitude, determination, discipline, perseverance, commitment and then work on the skills – it’s often a much better result. Obviously you can’t train some people to do certain jobs, but the point is if you find the right job for someone with the right attitude, you’ll have a loyal and hardworking employee for life.”

Simply by facilitating a running group, Keegan has been amazed by the resulting achievements of participants that have launched them from feeling hopeless and isolated from society to feeling a part of something as they collectively run thousands of kilometres and develop the confidence to take on further life opportunities.

On My Feet began in March 2015 and has grown to around 70 participants attending the Perth and Fremantle sessions. It’s the first of its kind in Australia and this February, a Melbourne chapter will be launched.

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