Credit: Eric Best

Stepping forward

Updated: September 28, 2015 - 10:23 am

A downtown Minneapolis running group is helping people experiencing homeless move forward one mile at a time.

On an early weekday morning there are plenty of runners roaming the streets of Minneapolis, but today a few dozen are meeting for the first time to exercise — and hug.

The runners are part of Mile in My Shoes, a group that aims to get homeless people on their feet — literally. Mile in My Shoes began last summer with a group from Higher Ground, Catholic Charities’ homeless shelter on Glenwood Avenue, but expanded this spring with runners from Emanuel Housing, a supportive, sober housing development near the Minnesota Vikings stadium.

“It’s a social community where you can talk to people and find others who aren’t from the same walks of life,” said Mishka Vertin, the group’s founder. “The runners have found it to be very therapeutic.”

Vertin and her boyfriend, Mike Jurasits, started the group after leading a similar group in New York where she worked as a social worker. Now twice a week groups from the two communities take to the streets to run in the early morning. Each runner begins with a mile with an ultimate goal of running the Turkey Trot 5K this November, though some runners plan to run 10K, 10-mile or marathon races. 

“We think it’s important to start at the same place. Goals are built on small steps,” Vertin said. “We don’t push anyone into a race we know they can’t do.”

The group also receives donated shoes and gear from shoe representatives and companies to get runners started. Vertin, an employee at Mill City Running, also has shirts for sale at the store on East Hennepin to raise money for running apparel. 

After a group of homeless men at Higher Ground ran for a successful season last year, Mile in My Shoes expanded into Emanuel Housing, a 101-unit affordable housing community for homeless veterans, disabled adults and low income men and women near the Mill District.

Claudia Kittock, a board member of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, began leading the new team after hearing residents didn’t feel welcomed into the community. “We were horrified by that,” she said. 

The group’s name is no accident. Vertin wants their dozens of runners to bridge the disconnect between downtown’s concentration of homeless communities and high-rises. Each runner hugs everyone in the group, learns their name and finishes their run together, regardless of their background. 

Kittock’s first run with the team at Higher Ground was enough to show her the ability of running and hugging to build social connection.

“The first time I went to Mile in My Shoes, we were talking about the people we met. We forgot who was homeless,” she said. 

The DMNA agreed earlier this year to help fund the group and the new downtown team.

Tom Uldrich, a resident of Emanuel Housing, is one of the newest runners to join Mile in My Shoes. He said his building hasn’t felt like a community, but now he sees his neighbors across the hall when he runs with the new team.

“Sometimes [residents]… just don’t interact as a community. If you’re closed off to your neighbor across the hall, how receptive are you going to be your [other] neighbors?” Uldrich said. “If they see us out participating and being a part of something, then maybe it will catch on.”

For Uldrich, the early mornings, physical activity and emotional support are all small steps toward bigger goals.

Apart from engaging the community, Uldrich said his commitment to running twice each week will also help him cut back on smoking and work to reverse weight gain he experiences from medication. 

 “No one is saying running cures you, but it can set a huge string of dominos in motion,” Kittock said. 

Thanks to Mile in My Shoes and a brand-new pair of running shoes, he hopes to take on the 5K this fall with his niece, a speedy cross-country runner.

“Come hell or high water, I’m going to run,” he said.

And when Uldrich finishes each of his runs, there will be a line of people, hands clasped together and cheering, to run through — unless he’s the first to cross the finish line.

“We leave nobody behind,” Kittock said. “We cheer louder for the last person to cross than the first person to cross.”