On September 24th 2012, we began the first day of our pilot programme after eight months of researching and three months of planning. I woke up extremely nervous with so many questions rushing through my mind, much like before a race or a very important pitch – have we done enough, are we prepared, did we forget anything? I remember it as if it was yesterday. The emotions swung from one end of the spectrum to the other. There was no more time for preparation and no turning back.
I arrived at the meeting point with butterflies in my stomach as I was terrified no one was going to turn up. The doors opened and to my relief, there were 16 young people and a handful of staff all chatting and messing around. We got ourselves into the appropriate clothing and footwear before heading off to a local park to meet the instructors. We were a huge group of young people, all in tracksuits and sports clothing walking down the street. I wasn’t sure what to think of it. Safe to say – I felt well out of my depth.
As we entered the park, we had the most incredible experience when we began a gentle jog. A few people who were out for a walk stopped and started to applaud us as we passed by. More and more people stopped and followed suit to the point when a large group of foreign students walking up ahead separated like when the sea parted for Moses. They became a tunnel of cheers as we ran through. I looked around to see our whole group smiling and laughing in this very special moment.
Right then on day one, the circumstances of the social standing between our group and the public had completely changed, switching the ignorant perceptions of the homeless with a real sense of admiration for them. To the public we could have been a sports team or even athletes. After all, it was in the wake of the Olympics and a summer filled with sporting inspiration. Running had given a platform for our group to break down the social barriers constantly held against them. Each group member was accepted as a human being with feelings and dreams and ambitions (just like anyone else) in a tough period of their life. This first hand experience further enhanced my belief of how powerful sport, and in particular running, is to oneself and those around us.
It wasn’t just an unexpected moment for me, the rest of the group also weren’t sure why we were being applauded either. One member turned to me and said, “are you a celebrity or something” to which I replied “not usually, but right now we all are”. This has gone on to happen time after time when we turn up to events and races. Spectators always ask me who we are and even how they can join us. Their reaction and response once they know what we do is extraordinary. 99% of them are blown away by how brave and inspiring the group is. Their opinion is different from what it would have been had we met in a cliché setting like on the street. This time they gain a new perspective on a ‘homeless person’, see them in their true light and want to continue supporting the group.
By the time we got to the instructors, most of the members were tired. Not surprising, as most of our new members are not used to running. The condition of your body has a huge impact on your life, especially if you allow it to weaken and break down, you won’t be able to do the things you want to, the downward spiral begins. This is the same scenario in homelessness as it is with depression, obesity and so on. Our first session lasted 20 minutes – minimal from a physical perspective, but not from a psychological one. Each member seemed to gain respect, admiration and self-esteem, be it a small dosage, it was most likely the first in a long time. They not only had an insight to how you can enjoy fitness, but felt a sense of achievement afterwards. The main reason why we all continue to run, get fit or compete is to revel in that moment of achievement.
Every day since then has been different, difficult and just as magnificent because we are constantly breaking new ground. The nature of homelessness changes on a daily basis, therefore as an organisation we learn to adapt and continue to build a charity that can and will go on to help hundreds, if not thousands of young people experiencing homeless across the United Kingdom and beyond.
My deepest thanks to everyone that has stuck by us over the years and to all the inspirational members we’ve had the privilege of knowing.