It’s just after 7 a.m. as a small band of runners sets out on W. 7th Street in downtown St. Paul, pumping their arms and legs in unison.
They’re members of Next Steps — a running club for homeless people.
For more than a year now, the club has been meeting on Monday and Friday mornings to jog together through these city streets known intimately by some of the runners.
Some wear donated sneakers and workout clothes. Others bring their own gear and use a closet at the shelter to stash their belongings. The group comprises homeless people from the Listening House shelter in St. Paul and volunteers.
For these men, the club offers a way to get healthy, but more than that, it has become a vehicle to transform their lives.
The idea was inspired by a national movement of homeless running clubs in other cities. Advocates say this type of group exercise builds confidence and provides an unexpected support system.
Running is such an easy thing to do, said Julie Borgerding, Listening House’s program director and the driving force behind Next Steps. “It’s a great metaphor for life: You just have to put one foot in front of the other,” she said.
Over the past year, 20 to 30 people have been involved in the group, which ran even in the most frigid months of winter. These days, a handful of core runners show up to run twice a week. Last spring, the group held its first official race — a 5K that drew 100 participants, including the homeless and their supporters.
It’s a tough sell getting people to join the group, Borgerding said. “They tend to walk a ton, so they think they’re always exercising. But they’re not really getting the benefit of exercise. You see a lot of trudging.”
She tries to promote not only the physical aspect but also the mental health benefits that running offers as endorphins are released. Then there are the life lessons the road teaches: discipline, focus, commitment, perseverance.
Being part of a group adds structure to the members’ lives and instills the importance of showing up for something and sharing a common goal, Borgerding added.
For Bernard MacDougall, a 50-something man with a long gray beard, the sense of community is a big draw. He’s been one of the most consistent members all year, Borgerding said, although he recently decided to take a break from the morning runs.
“I’ve got a lot of things to do,” he said.
Like most people who experience homelessness, MacDougall has a complicated story. A Florida native, he got divorced and then “pushed the reset button” a couple of years ago, he said, moving to Minnesota to look for construction work. He stays at the Dorothy Day Center, a shelter in St. Paul, and works late nights at a print shop, ending his shift at 2:30 a.m.
Running made him fit. It became easier the more he did it, he said proudly, his leg muscles becoming more defined. He went from 210 pounds to a svelte 155.
Ex-Marine Gregory Wells joined Next Steps after hearing about it on the bus from a homeless guy named Stanley Johnson, who aggressively recruited members before moving out of state. Wells still runs on his own, but the running group gives him something he can’t get from his solo workouts.
About four months ago, one of the Listening House volunteers gave everyone a book called “The Power of Habit.” Wells enjoyed the book and said, “It’s that type of stuff, the camaraderie that you can share with others,” that keeps him coming back.
Wells has been keeping track of his times in 5K races. He started at 30 minutes and clocked his most recent race at 26 minutes. His new goal is 18 minutes, but he predicted that it will take a while to reach it.
A growing movement
The inspiration for Next Steps came from a Philadelphia-based program started by North Dakota native Anne Mahlum. Like the club in St. Paul, it started slowly. She approached the local shelter with her idea, but officials were skeptical.
“They didn’t think that the guys were going to be interested in running,” Mahlum recalled. “The feeling was that they had other things to focus on — that this was not something that they could afford to spend time on.”
Six years later, her tiny running club has become a $6.5 million nonprofit organization called Back on My Feet. The program is highly structured: Runners sign dedication pledges; their attendance is tracked, and they receive job training. Participants are rewarded with job placement and help in finding housing.
Back on My Feet now operates in 10 cities. Just a few years ago, the group announced that it would start a chapter in the Twin Cities, citing the area’s reputation as a runner’s city. But it got cold feet about the cold weather. At the time, the organization was just starting out and Mahlum wasn’t sure that running in January and February would work.
“We definitely want to get there,” she said.
Greg Owen, senior research manager at the Wilder Research Center in St. Paul, who studies the state’s homeless population, supports the idea of a running club for the homeless.
“That makes a lot of sense,” he said, noting that more than half of Minnesota’s homeless population struggles with mental health issues, particularly depression, and that exercise has been proven to offer some relief.
But running can’t cure everything, Owen said. “I don’t know that it’s going to lift everyone out of homelessness.”
Back at the shelter, the runners arrive after their morning run, their bodies glistening with sweat and their chests rising and falling. They stretch their legs, holding onto the brick wall for support. A man walks by, sees the men stretching in their club T-shirts and stops. He calls out: “Next Step. What’s the Next Step?”
MacDougall approaches him and answers: “It’s just a running thing. We run in the mornings.” He then invites the man to join them sometime.
But the man waves him off. “Nah,” he says, “I’m too old to run.” He trudges on. A few minutes later, he returns to chat with the runners some more.