BALTIMORE – It was frigid in the predawn hours in West Baltimore. Men and women in running shoes emerged from the darkness and traded hellos, high-fives and hugs.
"Where else can you show up at 5:30 in the morning and get these kinds of hugs and smiles?" asked Derel Owens, 49, a counselor and barber's assistant. "Who's ready to run?"
Forty men and women were off and jogging.
Owens, a graduate of an addiction recovery program, is a volunteer team leader for Back on My Feet, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that, in the words of its mission statement, "combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources." The national organization encourages men and women who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to take part in group runs as a point of entry to a longer-term program of personal empowerment.
The runs take place three times a week, always at 5:30 a.m., in a dozen U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, New York and Baltimore.
Those who complete 90 percent of the runs over a 30-day span qualify for a program of classes and training designed to provide the kinds of tools and opportunities they will need to return to a stable and productive life — one that includes employment, a place to live and, ideally, a renewed sense of purpose.
More than 6,000 homeless or at-risk individuals have run more than a half-million miles with Back on My Feet since its founding 11 years ago, and more than two-thirds of those have gone on to find jobs and housing, the organization said. About 90 percent of that group has maintained their new conditions for at least six months.
In its nearly nine years in Baltimore, the program has served 856 homeless or at-risk people, helping about 300 find jobs, 130 find housing and 200 to complete a training program or earn a degree.
Owens' chapter, the Penn North Team, is the newest, founded at Penn North Recovery, a residential rehabilitation center. Participants say the classes and training are essential to recovery, but it's the running — and the positive camaraderie — that creates the foundation for change.
Pearly Blue III, 60, joined in 2012 after spending years battling heroin addiction and living on the street. He now lives in a house, works as a security assistant at the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, owns a car and spends off hours with the grandchildren he says he once neglected.
Blue has run five half-marathons and is training for a sixth, the Oldfields Half Marathon and Relay on April 7.
"It's about the wellness," he said. "The positive physical feeling just gives you this feeling you can do whatever you set your mind to."
"And it's about these great people who hold your hand, in so many ways," he said. "Back on My Feet has been one of the rocks in my life."
About half the runners on Friday were volunteers.
The paid staff members on hand included three veteran distance runners: executive director Jackie Range, marketing director Sydney Van Horn and program director Mary Beth Moran. They reminded the group that they can choose a one-mile walk, a two-mile run or a three-mile run, and at least one volunteer will stay with each member, no matter his or her pace.
"We leave no runner behind," said Van Horn, 27.
Last March, Shannon Adams was battling addiction when she moved in at Penn North with her 10-year-old daughter. Six months later, out of shape and nervous, she joined Back on My Feet.
Since then, Adams, 39, said she finished her first five-mile race the previous weekend — and graduated from a training program in community health work at the University of Maryland Medical Center the day before.
"I never thought I could run five miles or anything near it," she said. "But by meeting these small goals one at a time, I've gotten confidence I can do new things, and it has definitely transferred to the rest of my life."