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Running Program Gets Homeless Moving To Stability

There are a lot of services that help the Charlotte area’s homeless population. Shelters, soup kitchens, job assistance programs, showers. Typical stuff, really.

The Urban Ministry Center has branched out. It’s had a soccer program for several years.

And now it has a running program. The idea is that as physical fitness improves, homeless people start accomplishing goals they thought were out of reach. WFAE’s Greg Collard reports.

You might wonder, how do you get homeless people interested in running? Well, here’s a pretty big enticement: Free shoes. That grabbed the attention of Matthew Hoffman.

“The sign said, ‘come four times and you’ll get a pair of running shoes. It was a really a selfish mentality the way I think about it now, but it was a very natural selfish mentality.” 

Many runners say that’s what attracted them to the Urban Ministry Center’s program, and that’s OK, says Meredith Dolhare. She’s the program’s volunteer director, called RunningWorks.

“At first it’s all about the gear and then they stay because it’s about the comradery, the family, the team. Then they realize there’s more to it and they keeping coming, so that’s pretty cool.”

The program has about 30 runners. They run three times a week, and compete in weekend road races, mostly 5K and 10ks.

Matthew Hoffman is an exception.

“My 50K was horrible.”

That’s 31 miles.

“I did it 5:45:00. I wanted to do it in 5 hours.”

We run a few miles through Uptown as Matthew gives the Cliff’s Notes version of his story. He’s 34 and stays at the Uptown Men’s Shelter.

Matthew graduated from Independence High School, but dropped out of UNC-Chapel Hill. A series of part-time service jobs followed. About six years ago, he lost a job. A roommate kicked him out. He’s been in and out of homeless shelters ever since, save for the occasional squatting. For a while, a friend let him stay in his stepmother’s condo, but she didn’t know about it.

“When she found out, I had to leave.”

Being homeless took its emotional toll. He became bitter. Matthew’s hometown was booming, but his life was going downhill.

And then, Matthew saw that sign for free shoes. That was little more than a year ago. He ran more than the necessary four times to keep the shoes.

In February, Matthew finished that 50K.

“It’s apparently an incredible feat for somebody that’s not homeless, much less somebody who’s battling homelessness while training.”

Something clicked . Matthew was feeling better about himself. He started applying for jobs. He found one at a Subway. Minimum wage, but that doesn’t matter.

“Dealing with the public and getting to serve others and help to make their lives more enjoyable and to create a product they enjoy really gives great satisfaction.

And then, Matthew ran off. He had to get to work.

The Urban Ministry Center launched the running program in the spring of 2012.  Again, director Meredith Dolhare:

“Originally, people thought I was crazy, but I always says, ‘What do you get from running?’ ”

Discipline, confidence, self-respect, she says.

The runner’s shoes are donated. They’re gently used, but high end. Runners also have access to shirts, shorts and sweatpants. Dolhare says the program runs on a budget of about $20,000. The biggest expense: bus passes.

“That’s mobility for them and that’s the ability for them to go and maybe for  a job. That’s the way I look at it.”

But to get those bus passes, runners must do more than run.

After each run, there’s a mandatory life-skills session in topics like anger management and goal-setting. Runners gather in a circle. Today’s topic is relationships.

“We all interact with everyone around us, so what we want to do today is elevate our awareness around that concept,” the facilitator says.

A lot of people here have made impulsive decisions. They need coping skills, like 42-year-old Tom Carter.

“I’ll just quit my job. I like working if it’s a good situation, but you’ve got to deal with a lot of stuff. You have to deal with personalities. It can be stressful.”

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.

“It’s still getting along with that person that’s right next to you down the line in the kitchen. Or if they if they annoy you, keeping your mouth shut. We work on that all the time – doing the next right thing.”

One step at a time.

Greg has been with WFAE since 2008, all as news director. He came to WFAE from West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In his eight years there, Greg had roles as a reporter, editor and producer. He was the executive producer of a television newsmagazine and news director for radio and television when he decided to head south for Charlotte.