Three times a week, a bunch of runners gathers at a park in Perth, chatting, stretching, doing laps. Like other runners, they’re working on their fitness. But these runners are working on something else, too.
“Running has become a metaphor for my life,” says Kyle Holtzman, who describes himself as an “extremely satisfied OMF Team member”.
Holtzman - "45 but I don't look a day over 60" - is one of a band of 30 or so participants in On My Feet (OMF) volunteer-led running groups in WA, Melbourne and South Africa that aim to help people experiencing homelessness create a better life for themselves.
“The OMF team, participants and volunteers alike do not judge me. They welcome me and I am no longer telling myself that I am a useless, homeless, junkie bum. I tell myself that I am part of the running community,” says Holtzman, who trains with the Perth OMF chapter.
“Throughout my adult life I’ve struggled to maintain stable housing for myself and my children. My on-again, off-again difficulties with addiction have affected my ability to maintain employment, and subsequently, private rental accommodation. I’ve spent time sleeping rough, squatting, couch surfing and at transitional housing centres on several occasions.
“It is traumatic for my children, my long-suffering beautiful mother, and for me each time this cycle repeats,” he says.
Joining On My Feet, he says, made a huge difference.
“As a participant, volunteers have befriended me, counselled me, and even sought counsel from me at times. I’ve been gifted dear friends that I would never have earned myself without becoming a member of the OMF team. I’ve been shown, or at least reminded, of another way to live.”
In 2016, Holtzman’s training with OMF saw him travel to Victoria to do the Melbourne Marathon, along with Ian Brown, a former OMF participant who is now the lead volunteer at the Perth group (OMF has two other groups in Western Australia, plus one in Melbourne and one in South Africa).
“Every chance I get I am telling people about this wonderful program that I have been afforded the chance and privilege to be a small part of,” Brown, 59, says. “As a participant I had nothing when I returned from overseas and was living day to day and found a homeless shelter… I met the OMF founder and he offered myself and other members at St Bartholomew’s House a program with some chance of fitness, shirts and shoes, and the chance of competing in events here in Perth and Melbourne.
I have a lot of people who I call friends and acquaintances who know my story and are there for me
“Without OMF I am not sure what my life would be like.
“I have a full-time job and permanent accommodation and structure. I have a lot of people who I call friends and acquaintances who know my story and are there for me.
“As a volunteer, all I do is to help motivate people, run with fellow members and to be there to talk and share their hard times with. Some people in our group have had it hard with sleeping rough, outdoors in the elements, have or had mental health issues or addiction problems, so I count myself lucky.”
On My Feet was founded in Perth in late 2014 by Keegan Crage, a businessman who runs marathons and ultra-marathons. The board of the 100 per cent volunteer-managed program includes former Australian representative cricketer John Inverarity and AFL coach John Worsfold, and the OMF marathon program was developed with assistance from marathon champion Robert de Castella.
“We currently have circa 30 homeless participants in our program – all from different ages and cultural backgrounds,” says OMF director Ayden Doohan. "We welcome any person experiencing homelessness. Participants do not need to be living on the street. Some have temporary accommodation but no long-term commitment, whilst others may couch surf.
“Participants join the program with different intentions and motivations in mind. Some want to belong in a community, others want a job and some just want to be fitter and healthier. Each participant has a different meaning of success and a different ‘end-point’,” Doohan says.
OMF is a two-stage program. The first stage is the “Self-worth Plan”, where members are provided with running gear and asked to commit to running three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The aim in this stage of the program is to redefine how people see themselves, helping them develop confidence and life skills. The next stage is an “Independence Plan” that aims, through links to the community and corporate support, to provide opportunities for training and assistance in seeking jobs.
“With exercise and running, you only get out what you put in. This is also the case with our program. The outcomes and takeaways are entirely contingent on the commitment participants make to our program, our values and our community,” Doohan says.
“When participants start to achieve their fitness and exercise goals, they then tend to turn their attention to other milestones they want to achieve.”
For Holtzman, the community spirit that OMF has created is something very special.
“Most people are aware of the Act, Belong, Commit campaign for depression. In the past I have joined community organisations and for me the acting and committing has been easy enough, but only OMF has facilitated the belonging! It is nothing short of magic,” he says.
“Through event participation made free by OMF and its supporters, running has become a metaphor for my life. Both running and life are easier without negative influence. I’m almost ‘on my feet’ and I’m ‘in for the long run’.”
If you’d like to help On My Feet you can find out more here.
If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website. If you’re homeless or facing a crisis, you can search Ask Izzy to find food, a place to stay, legal advice and more near you. Advocacy organisation Homelessness Australia has assembled a list of services, divided by state, here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here, for services offered by Salvation Army click here and Red Cross services here.
Filthy Rich & Homeless season 2 airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August 8.30pm on SBS. You can also stream the show anytime on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #FilthyRichHomeless.