WASHINGTON—Strategically positioned docks of cheery red bicycles have become as much a part of the region’s scenery as its beloved cherry blossoms.
The easy-to-operate Capital Bikeshare cycles have long beckoned to tourists eager to explore the National Mall and other iconic landmarks, as well as adventurous commuters vexed by traffic jams and an unreliable Metro system.
More recently, however, the sturdy two-wheelers have become a liberating force for a more under-the-radar set of riders in the nation’s capital—homeless individuals on the rebound who need reliable and cheap transportation to jobs, schools, interviews, recovery meetings and other appointments.
In fact, clients with the non-profit Back on My Feet, have racked up so many Capital Bikeshare trips—more than 9,100 in the last year—that the city’s Department of Transportation recognized the homeless-helping organization this spring as the winner of a goDCgo Employer Ambassador Award for exceptional commitment to sustainable transportation.
Back on My Feet combines exercise—running is its signature activity—and community to help adults transition from shelters to permanent housing and jobs. The non-profit recruits individuals from homeless and residential facilities.
It is among the 24 area organizations enrolled in Capital Bikeshare’s Community Partners program. That program’s steep discounts allow the non-profit partners to offer free bicycle access to their clients.
Pedal-powered transit meshes with Back on My Feet’s mission of wellness and empowerment, Christine O’Halloran, the organization’s workforce development manager, tells Renewal News in an interview.
“Riding a bike is healthier and good for the environment,” she says. “Capital Bikeshare helps our budget and helps our members to get around.”
Miles lead to milestones
At daybreak on a misty, gray weekday in late April, O’Halloran waits on a sidewalk in the 500 block of New Jersey Avenue NW, about a 100-yard dash from Clean and Sober Streets, a residential treatment facility.
She watches as an ever-growing circle of spirited athletes stretch, hug, laugh and greet Back on My Feet rookies, veterans and mentors by name. Soon, as is customary on Wednesdays, a gaggle of gangly undergraduates from a Georgetown University running club pile out of a van to join the pack before it embarks on a 45-minute, go-at-your-own-speed run around the neighborhood.
Committing to that 5:45 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday ritual is literally the first step for Back on My Feet novices. And sticking with it builds the base that serves as a launchpad toward healthier options.
Everybody in the morning circle looks up to fellow runner Bomani—partly because he is 6-feet, 5-inches tall, but mostly for what he has accomplished since first donning a pair of running shoes almost two years ago.
At 5 a.m. each weekday, the 43-year-old rides a Bikeshare bicycle from his Columbia Heights apartment to his job cooking for up to 90 residents at Clean and Sober Streets, near Union Station. It wasn’t that long ago that he was undergoing drug and alcohol addiction treatment at that same facility.
Early on in his treatment, he noted that some fellow residents were sporting flashy new running shoes. They told him about how Back on My Feet offered running gear—and a different way forward.
“At first, I was just chasing the shoes,” Bomani admits in an interview. “I figured maybe I’ll get the shoes and run a little bit.”
That little bit has added up to miles as well as milestones. Thus far, in addition to the thrice-weekly runs, he has competed in a couple of 5-kilometer races and a pair of half marathons. Plus, professional training at D.C. Central Kitchen opened up a culinary career to the former licensed sheet-metal journeyman.
Job training, plus lessons about financial literacy, transportation and housing were all markers along the arc of a fulfilling journey with Back on My Feet that have helped Bomani restore his confidence and self-esteem.
“They are part of my story because they helped me get to where I am,” says the Spingarn High School graduate. “I knew where I came from and I didn’t want to repeat those same things. Today I feel so much better as a person.”
Bikeshare access means “no excuse”
Back on My Feet, founded in 2007, is active in 11 other U.S. cities. The D.C. chapter fields three different running teams. In addition to the one affiliated with Clean and Sober Streets, Team Petworth is linked to La Casa and Team Alexandria is matched with Friends of Guest.
At the downtown D.C. office, one of O’Halloran’s most daunting challenges is figuring how to fairly divide the $10,000 allotted annually for financial aid assistance—expenses such as transportation, security deposits, uniforms and professional licenses—among the roughly 130 local clients served annually.
“Transportation is one of our biggest expenses here,” she says, so free Capital Bikeshare access for clients is a budget-stretcher. “It’s invaluable.”
Saving on transportation costs and building Back on My Feet alumni chapters in communities without bike-share options is much more difficult, she says, because it’s more trying and expensive for clients to get from Point A to Point B.
Bike access allows program graduates to stay connected. Bomani, for instance, is a mentor for newcomers and the nucleus of a strong alumni group.
“Once I had the bike, I didn’t have any excuse for not getting to places,” he says about pedaling to work, visits with his children and other appointments. “I have transportation across the city.”
Cooking, pedaling and running. Who knew?
Bomani never imagined he would be lording over a kitchen and cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for dozens because his mother never allowed him to “hover near the oven” when he was growing up in Southeast D.C.
Nor could he envision a day when running and bicycling would be part of his daily repertoire.
Years ago, he would question the sanity of bundled-up runners he would see early on winter mornings during his drive to work.
“Now I’m one of those people,” he says with a laugh.
Running, he says, has allowed him to reinvent himself and find a place where he feels at home. And bicycling gives him the mobility to stay connected to that cherished camaraderie.
“Rain, sleet or snow, it don’t make no difference,” Bomani says about the freedom of two wheels. “Thank God for the bicycle. All I need is a little bit of pavement.”
As much praise as he has for Capital Bikeshare, like anybody who has pedaled one of the three-speed, built-to-last behemoths knows they were designed with durability, not fleetness, in mind.
“I love everything about it, except for maybe one thing,” he says, smiling. “No matter how fast I pedal, I’m the slowest bike on the road.”