Preventing Homelessness in Atlanta: Back on My Feet
"You don’t judge anyone there; you just run with them. You talk about life, but you don’t talk about, ‘oh, you’re homeless?’ because you don’t really care. You just care that they’re there and they’re trying, just like you.” -Karen Varsha
It’s the end of a workday in Atlanta. I meet Karen Varsha, a 67-year old semi-retired photographer, at our old stomping grounds: the Einstein Bagels in Midtown. It was here that Karen gathered with other volunteers for monthly “townhall” style meetings to discuss upcoming races with the local chapter of Back on My Feet (BoMF). Several years ago, I served as BoMF Atlanta’s volunteer coordinator. I was fresh out of college, and excited about the mission of the organization: to empower individuals experiencing homelessness through the power of running.
Three mornings a week at 5:45 am, a dozen or more dedicated volunteers congregate with an equal number of “members”— residents of transitional housing facilities like The Salvation Army and Gateway Center (featured in Part I of this blog series)—around the city for a one to three mile walk/jog. On Saturdays, members and volunteers who are training for races informally gather at a MARTA train station for a longer group run. Members who stick it out for at least 30 days are eligible to receive incentives like gear, career counseling, or even housing support.
It was through this organization that I met Karen, as well as Rick Murray, a 69-year old disabled Vietnam war veteran. Karen and I chat about her upcoming trip with her husband while we wait for Rick’s Uber to weave through the rush-hour traffic. Rick arrives at the door with his walker, and though I jump up to hold the door for him, he has already deftly maneuvered his way through. Despite complications from his recent back surgery, Rick moves with a youthful energy. He holds his hands wide as he invites a group hug from Karen and I: standard greeting procedure for the Back on My Feet community. He orders a triple-shot of espresso in his latte and treats me to an iced tea.
We sit by a sunny window in the cafe, where it smells like coffee beans and toasting bagels. The staccato sounds of the city we love blend with the soft music playing inside. We begin our conversation.
Rick, a recovering alcoholic, spent much of his life in Northern California, where he racked up well over a decade of sobriety. In 2014, he sold his land and moved to Georgia to take care of his father-in-law, who had been diagnosed with dementia. After moving to Atlanta, he disconnected from the recovery process. “I went out and tested the beer and tequila around here for nine months,” Rick admitted. Unfortunately, his second wife tired of his behavior and separated herself.
“I drank myself into oblivion.” Soon, he found himself without a place that he could call home.
In 2002, he had experienced homelessness for the first time. He was living in the warehouse where he stored his tools and his truck. “There are so many degrees of homelessness,” Rick explained, “That’s what killed me that first time. My mind kept telling me, ‘I’m not homeless! I’m worthless, but I’m not homeless.’”
Something similar occurred when he moved to Georgia: although he was the caretaker for a 50-acre property north of the city and living in a carriage house near the barn, he eventually admitted to himself that this was not a home. “I was interacting with animals, not people, and I was lying to the property owner,” Rick shared. “I busted the lock and got into his liquor cabinet. Just because I had a shelter, what was my lifestyle? Was I even alive, you know? I showered, I shaved, I had a washer-dryer… but I was hopeless.”
“So, when did you go to Sally?” Karen gently asks, using the BoMF nickname for the Salvation Army, a transitional housing facility that partners with the organization. This was the location where the two met during early-morning group runs. “Well, I had to get my drinking done first,” Rick quips with a friendly smile.
Karen and Rick treat each other with great tenderness, exposing a deep friendship not uncommon between BoMF members and volunteers, despite their banter and teasing. The two dive into a slurry of memories from Rick’s first few months in the program. I join in too, as I remember Rick’s early days.
“[A fellow BoMF Member] was always making too much noise in the dorm at 5:30 am. We didn’t want to get out of bed, but he’d always say to me, ‘come on, OG. You can do it!’ Thanks to that man, it’s been a couple of Februaries since I joined.”
“He always called you Old School Rick!” Karen laughs. Then, she remembers: “your first race with Back on My Feet was ‘Run in the Cold’ for the Union Mission.”
It’s my time to step in: “Was that the race you fell in?” I ask, a memory bubbling to the surface of Rick running his last few meters in front of the cheering crowd, before hitting the pavement hard! No – that wasn’t his first race. But it was one of his first that he completed without a walker.
Another volunteer believed that Rick was capable of more than he knew. In the beginning, Rick had struggled navigating the cracks in the sidewalk with his walker, especially since he didn’t make the time limits for some of his earliest races and was forced to move to the oft-cracked sidewalks so that the roads could be re-opened. For this race, though, the man pretended that the race organizers had a “no walker policy”—and Rick believed him.
“He purposefully told Rick that they don’t allow walkers in the race. I probably tried to tell Rick that it wasn’t true,” remembers Karen.
“Karen always tried to soften things up for me,” Rick explains fondly. Nevertheless, he completed the 3.1 mile course without assistance, despite getting a little bloody at the finish line. “All my beautiful people came and rescued me.”
“But you finished! You inspired people,” Karen exclaims.
For her part, Karen struggles with her own injuries. “My doctor told me to stop running four years ago, but I don’t want to miss this,” she admits, “Before, I wanted to be the person who was accepting of all kinds of people, but until I came out and ran with BoMF, I didn’t know how.” She went on to explain why BoMF is such a unique experience: “You just become so close to the people you’re running with. You don’t judge anyone there; you just run with them. You talk about life, but you don’t talk about, ‘oh, you’re homeless?’ because you don’t really care. You just care that they’re there and they’re trying, just like you.”
“I have a passion for what we do – for what it’s done for me,” shares Rick. “Back on My Feet has given me an opportunity to seek higher levels within myself. I thought I understood what love was, but I didn’t have a clue until I joined BoMF and met the people.” Rick motions towards Karen: “people like you. Everyone I’ve met is phenomenal.” He takes a moment to thank Karen for her role in organizing a group visit to the hospital after his surgery to hand-deliver a Valentine’s day card. “I would have never imagined that I’d be in a group of people who are CEO’s,” Rick laughed. “And it’s not about their money. It’s about their hearts.”
The conversation shifted towards some frustrations that Karen and Rick have experienced regarding the program; sometimes, people will come out for a few days just to get free shoes or gear. Occasionally, Rick will hear someone in the dorm complaining: “I thought they were going to find me housing right away and pay my first month’s rent.”
Rick sometimes feels frustrated with the entitlement that he feels has permeated our culture. “People complain if there’s no hot water left at the shelter, but I went a whole month without a shower,” Rick shares of his time in Vietnam. “I dipped my hat in the rice patty, got wet, and scrubbed up with my Ivory bar of soap.”
Nevertheless, these challenging war-time memories and his time in recovery have given him a gratitude towards life. Rick’s father was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, and his mother half. Reconnecting with his Native American spirituality saved him. “My mentor, who has crossed over now: he showed me a lot of stuff. He was really hard on me because I’m a knot-head. I needed that pounding. I got back into praying, and I still practice today.”
Over the years, some BoMF volunteers experience the relapse of one of their running-buddies. Karen recalled running into a member who she hadn’t seen in four years at the grocery store. He greeted her warmly but resisted her invitation to come out to run again. “There’s the embarrassment and the guilt and shame,” explained Rick, of resurfacing after a relapse. “It’s horrible if you allow it to be.” Back on My Feet has a policy of never kicking someone out of the program for relapsing. “We always welcome them back,” Karen shares.
Rick admits that he has avoided some of the troubles that plague many older veterans. “I’m one of those very blessed, fortunate people; I don’t qualify for many resources since my monthly income is too great.” Nevertheless, he struggled through homelessness and the recovery process and had to work through the resentment he felt toward those who did qualify for assistance programs. As a Dorm Monitor during his time at the Salvation Army, he often saw what he referred to as a “revolving door” of veterans who were in and out of subsidized and transitional housing – often because of drug abuse. “Without mental health support, it is a waste of money.”
“I wish I had a zillion dollars, and I could buy acres and build communities of homeless people. The only rule would be to do your part. They could work the land and fend for themselves,” Rick suggests, mostly in jest. “The Native American in me comes out when I think about the possibilities.”
Realistically speaking, I ask, what can someone like me do if they encounter a homeless person on the streets? “I’d tell them to look into the shelters and the shelters’ resources,” Karen suggests. “I don’t ever give them money; most of them know where they can get a meal.”
Rick chimes in: “Yes, that’s the worst thing: giving money. If you want to give money, give it to the shelter or one of the organizations that they work with!” Then again, he reconsiders: “I wouldn’t hesitate buying them a cup of coffee or a bagel.”
“Volunteering is a wonderful thing! Get out there. I used to cook at the soup kitchens when I could. It was part of my recovery,” Rick says. “Give back to your community. Especially if you’re from the addict world; it’s highly recommended. You get so much out of volunteering.”
Despite the gravity of the conversation, Karen and Rick’s voices remain light. They are still buzzing from the memories of the first race they walked together. Having fallen far behind, they tried to take a shortcut through the Georgia World Congress Center. Instead, they became trapped in a gaggle of teenage cheerleaders at a convention. “It took us forever to finish!” Karen laughs. “We don’t take shortcuts anymore.”
Last July, Rick completed Atlanta Track Club’s 6.2-mile AJC Peachtree Road Race. “God, it was great!” Rick gushes. “I love going through Atlanta with the fire hydrants going and people cheering you on. You pull over to tie your tennis shoes and some guy’s bringing you a bloody Mary…”
“Rick! Don’t drink that!” Karen scolds, but they both laugh. The sun is going down and soon, we each go about our evenings. Karen’s alarm is set for 5:00 am. Tomorrow, she will faithfully make her way to the Salvation Army, as she has done at least twice a week for several years. Rick, now considered an alum of the program after moving into stable housing, will join her once his back has healed. I walk to the train feeling joyful.
Empowerline can provide help in the home, emergency financial assistance, and other resources to connect older people, individuals with disabilities, and caregivers with services and resources to maintain independence in their homes and communities.
If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness or is in danger of experiencing homelessness, call Gateway Center at (404) 215-6600 to be connected with services. You can also call empowerline at (404) 463-3333 to learn your options.