In a South London park, a group of women runners are catching their breath after a sprint-based game that has brought out even the most reluctant competitive streak. There’s a rosy glow of satisfaction on everyone’s face as we begin our cool-down stretch, but something more, too – a sense of solidarity and togetherness. This is no ordinary running group. These women have had to overcome far more than the usual obstacles to be here: they’ve all experienced homelessness – some are still of no fixed abode, while others are in sheltered housing or hostels. The group is one of seven organised by A Mile in Her Shoes (AMIHS), a charity set up in 2013 that works with homeless organisations to provide free, women-only running groups for their clients.
‘We’re all about empowerment,’ says founder Nicola Miller, a 35-year-old communications manager. ‘The aim is to make women – many who have been through some terrible experiences – feel good about themselves. The running is how we do it – it’s the means, not the end.’
Nicola first came up with the idea after volunteering with the charity Crisis two Christmases ago. ‘I walked away asking myself what else I could do,’ she says. A long-term runner, Nicola wondered whether the physical and mental benefits of running could help this vulnerable, and very often hidden, section of society.
She began by contacting charities working with homeless people, such as Crisis and Thames Reach – whose session I’ve joined today – and outlining her proposal. ‘Nicola approached us about setting up a group here at the start of 2014,’ says Jeanne-Marie Czemerys, lead worker on the employment and resettlement team. ‘We jumped at the chance. Some of the women have been coming almost every week since we started.’
Jeanne-Marie has taken part in today’s session, too – as she does whenever she can. Nicola believes this is one of the important aspects of the way AMIHS works: ‘It’s not an “us and them” thing,’ she explains. ‘It doesn’t matter whether a participant is a volunteer, an employee at the organisation or someone who is homeless – we draw no distinctions. Everyone accepts, appreciates and understands what others may have been through – there’s no judgement or unwelcome curiosity.’
Another key feature of the group is that the women are provided with everything they need to participate. ‘We’re trying to remove the barriers to taking part,’ says Nicola. ‘We all face barriers, but for homeless people there are issues that wouldn’t even occur to most of us, such as whether burning calories through running will mean you need more money to feed yourself, or how on earth you’re going to buy a sports bra.’
The women in need are provided with good-quality secondhand kit, running shoes and a new sports bra – plus water and post-run snacks. And there’s no minimum level of fitness or experience required. ‘Almost everyone thinks they won’t be fit enough when they come to the first session,’ says Nicola. ‘But everybody works to their own level. We never leave anyone out, or behind.’
For many of the participants, the group aspect is crucial. ‘It’s a great atmosphere,’ says Becky, 43, who was homeless for six months before she found temporary accommodation through Thames Reach. ‘I love feeling part of the group and it’s made me feel more confident. I like the fact that it’s just women. It feels like a safe space, and you don’t get men competing against you.’ But she says the group leaders do challenge them – ‘just enough’. ‘I was only walking to begin with, but now I run a bit, too,’ she adds.
Zara, 32, has been attending the weekly session in Camberwell for three months. ‘I feel healthier and fitter and, with three children to look after, I look forward to having an hour for myself where I can relax and forget about my problems,’ she says. Zara became homeless two and a half years ago, but with help from friends she was able to find private rented accommodation. She then signed up to the ‘Leap into work’ scheme at Thames Reach, which is where she heard about AMIHS.
‘It’s good because it’s free, and that helps get you started,’ she says. ‘Before I came, I was very shy. I’ve gained so much confidence from coming to the sessions. I now have a part-time job and am also doing work experience.’
AMIHS groups are run entirely by volunteers. Nicola herself leads one. ‘It’s great to see first-hand the impact it has,’ she says. The session I join is led by Karen Tostee, who read about AMIHS in The Pavement, a free magazine for homeless people. ‘Running has always been important for me in staying positive and tackling life’s challenges,’ says the 25-year-old, who works in social care. ‘It just makes sense to make it more accessible to people who are perhaps at a point in their life where they are struggling with things. I am passionate about addressing the big issues, such as social exclusion, homelessness and poverty, so in that respect the role is perfect. I leave work early on Wednesdays and make up the time elsewhere.’
Grant funding has financed some of the training of volunteers and provision of kit, but the majority has come through donations by the general public. ‘Twitter has been fantastic for us,’ says Nicola. ‘We’ve had a great response, particularly from within the running community. I think running people get it straight away – they completely understand why it could be beneficial.’ Many kit donations arrive with a little note saying how much running has helped someone get through tough times.
Setting up a charity has been a steep learning curve for Nicola, who also has a full-time career. ‘It’s been brilliant, terrifying and really rewarding all at the same time,’ she admits. She has found that the empowerment aspect of AMIHS has extended far beyond its participants. ‘It applies just as much to our volunteers, and to me, too,’ she says. ‘It’s been such an incredible journey and I feel stronger, happier and more confident in all aspects of my life. I’m not sure where AMIHS will be in a year’s time, but I do know that I want to keep putting smiles on the faces of all the women who are involved.’