Dignity and Social Inclusion: Civil society’s role in social protection for homeless

Date: 28 July 2017
Author: Katy Sherratt

“When you’re homeless, you feel like people really don’t care and no one really knows where you are. But Back on My Feet found us.” Valerie, Back on My Feet Member, Philadelphia


Civil society organizations play an important role in providing opportunities for the most vulnerable members of society, such as the homeless, to realize their right to a decent standard of living. Among organizations serving the homeless in the United States, the national non-profit Back on My Feet uses an atypical model. Back on My Feet uses running as a way to restore dignity and promote social inclusion among those experiencing homelessness and then layers on education, employment and housing support to build long-term social and economic security. “Do homeless people run?” many ask.  In fact, more than 6,000 individuals experiencing homelessness have collectively run or walked more than 500,000 miles with Back on My Feet and have, with the organization’s support, gone on to secure jobs and homes. That homeless individuals can and do run right alongside those who are not homeless overturns stereotypes that pervade understandings of the homeless in the United States. When tied to the education, employment and housing outcomes of Back on My Feet, this unique running-based model provides an example for how civil society can help promote and implement social policies actively rooted in dignity and social inclusion.

Restoring Dignity is Essential in Social Protection for the Homeless

While the United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; it is a signatory to the Convention. So, while not legally bound, this indicates the state’s recognition of the rights of everyone to “an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”(Article 11) as well as “social security, including social insurance” (Article 9). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment No. 19 on the right to social security further elaborates on a rights holders’ right to basic shelter and housing, water and sanitation, foodstuffs, education; and social protection’s role in preventing social exclusion and promoting social inclusion. Additionally, the Sustainable Development Goals also call for access to affordable housing (Target 11.1), social protection (Target 1.3) and productive employment and decent work (Target 8.5).

Yet, despite billions of dollars spent annually to reduce homelessness in the United States, there has only been nominal change in the rates of homelessness (between 2014 and 2015 the national rate of homelessness fell from 18.3 per 10,000 people to 17.7), demonstrating the need for more radical and innovative solutions.  Part of the problem may lie in the broader services landscape itself, specifically an absence of initiatives attentive to dignity and social inclusion. A 2008 study shows that individuals experiencing homelessness are often demoralized by negative interactions with service providers and even opt out of pursuing services altogether because of these interactions. In interviews with more than 500 individuals experiencing homelessness, response themes showed a dynamic between provider and client that left individuals feeling dehumanized or infantilized. In the American homeless services ecosystem, there is little attention given to how the homeless retain their dignity through the trauma of the experience.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) like Back on My Feet can help facilitate access to the basic rights outlined in international and domestic legal instruments. The organization prioritizes dignity as a foundation in successful implementation of traditional education, employment and housing assistance.  In a unique approach, Back on My Feet deploys a two-phase system that begins with running. Operating in 12 major U.S. cities from New York City to San Francisco, the organization recruits programme participants from homeless shelters and residential facilities and begins with a commitment to run, or walk, three days a week in the early morning. Participants (referred to as “members”) run alongside volunteers who lead each running team and create a supportive community. After 30 days in the running/walking phase of the programme at 90 percent attendance, members earn the opportunity to move into the second phase of the programme called Next Steps, which provides educational support, job training, employment referrals and housing resources.

Individuals experiencing homelessness often struggle to see what they are capable of achieving when their dignity has been eroded.  One member explains that “Life kept telling me, just stop, just give up, don’t worry about it, you’re not gonna make it. Maybe this life is not for you.” So, Back on My Feet starts with a proactive strategy to restore dignity. Survey responses from more than 1,000 Back on My Feet members shows that after 90 days in the programme, 97 percent take a more positive attitude toward themselves and 86 percent feel more satisfied with their lives. After 60 days in the programme, Back on My Feet members are 2.5 times more likely than the general urban homeless population to report high self-esteem on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. These 60- and 90-day collection points typically occur months before members have obtained employment or housing through the programme. They are the starting point – changes in self-perception and sense of belonging, both fuelled through running. The goal of Back on My Feet, though, is not to create runners among the homeless, but instead to empower individuals to move their lives forward from homelessness to social inclusion, and to realizing their rights to health and economic security.

The Role of Civil Society in Realizing Rights

Thus, when governments faces challenges in meeting the needs of the population, CSOs can help enable enjoyment of rights. Collaboration between the state, civil society and where relevant, private entities, can lead to a more stable and effective provision of social services and promotion of greater social inclusion.

Promoting Social Inclusion Provides the Homeless with a Sense of Normalcy and Belonging

Homelessness creates social isolation even in the most densely populated areas. For those who have been living on the streets and even upon transitioning into a shelter, most have lost any social network or support they once had. Some have lived their entire lives on the fringe – in poverty, bouncing through the foster care system, or struggling with addiction – with little or no supportive community.

Back on My Feet views inclusion in a positive, stable community as an essential part of providing homeless services and one that improves health, education, employment and housing outcomes, in keeping with the social protection entitlements outlined in General Comment No. 19. A team of Back on My Feet runners is made up of individuals experiencing homelessness alongside everyday volunteers: teachers, lawyers, civil servants and more. Members attest that the relationships that result from these running partnerships help them regain a sense of normalcy and inspire hope for the future. Beyond the early morning runs, other activities include holiday social events as teams and Saturday training runs for the local city marathons. The programme provides for a sense of belonging to something other than “the system”. As one member explained, “That’s what I needed. That camaraderie and being a part of a community again. That’s what I was missing.”

Education, Employment and Housing are Still Key

Restoring dignity and prioritizing social inclusion do not, alone, provide the resources individuals need to move from homelessness to social well-being, health and economic security. The aforementioned Next Steps phase of the programme provides concrete support for members to enjoy these rights. Members work with staff to develop a personal roadmap to independence. Participants benefit from financial literacy classes in basic banking and credit, and members are empowered to open bank accounts and seek credit counselling. The programme offers soft skills training where members can learn  skills such as resume writing, workplace communication, time management, job searching and creating an online identity, as well as computer literacy courses; in addition to hard skills training such as fork lift truck driving or culinary training with partners. As resources allow, members receive financial assistance to remove barriers to employment and housing. Financial aid can cover education enrolment fees, work supplies, transportation or rental security deposits. Back on My Feet also helps connect members to employment partners and to identify housing opportunities to reach their goals of employment, housing and economic security.

Evaluations of the programme show that it is achieving its goals thanks to the rights-based groundwork laid through the programme, leading to a better standard of living. More than 70 percent of members who join the programme obtain further education, long-term employment and sustainable housing. Of those who find employment, 83 percent are still employed after 15 months, 44 percent receive a wage increase within the first 6 months and 21 percent receive a promotion. Members start earning, on average, at USD12.75 per hour compared to the national minimum wage of USD7.25 per hour. According to one member, the programme led to a greater transformation in his life in six months than other programmes did in years.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Providers and funders should value and prioritize dignity and social inclusion as key components of homeless services.

Dignity and social inclusion have not been prioritized in United States homeless services and their preservation is rarely discussed. Policy needs to pivot to focusing efforts on providing social protection to those experiencing homelessness and recognizing the need for proactive initiatives, deliberate programming and resources to restore and promote dignity and social inclusion. Government service providers can learn from and embrace the approach of programmes that employ a truly holistic and human approach to homelessness on a broader scale to ensure that individuals are encouraged to seek help, ultimately yielding greater and more enduring outcomes.

Increased funding to CSOs that help individuals access social services could go a long way in ensuring access to employment, economic security, housing and social well-being for vulnerable populations. Without funding to scale civil society programmes that prioritize dignity and social inclusion, we are missing a chance at more effective systems and may be altogether overlooking key elements of reducing homelessness in the United States as well as in other national contexts.

2. More pathways are needed for employment opportunities and affordable housing.

While the state has a responsibility to ensure people’s ability to secure an adequate standard of living, two primary challenges remain for the homeless and those living in poverty: (1) insufficient safe, affordable housing and (2) inadequate pathways to living-wage jobs. CSOs can play an important role, often stepping in to fill the gap. Employers and employment agencies should look to organizations that proactively build up dignity, in addition to tangible work skills, as a source of diverse and reliable employees.  To incentivize corporations further, the state should extend the business benefits of hiring from vulnerable populations, beyond the existing working tax credits in addition to driving stronger policy around hiring of individuals with some form of legal conviction.

To increase the availability of safe, affordable housing  near living-wage jobs;  the state, non-profits and private enterprises should collaborate more on innovative solutions, like the reuse of vacant and low-profit buildings, tiny home concepts and communal living opportunities. Additionally, any new or existing low-income housing communities should embed social inclusion programmes into the day-to-day life in those communities to create a more positive living environment to help prevent low-income individuals from cycling back into homelessness.

Ultimately, when building social protection systems for the homeless and other vulnerable populations, they must all be driven by a common priority of meeting each human rights principle. Only then will we be able to meet the employment-, housing- and social protection-related targets of the SDGs.


Katy Sherratt is an award winning social innovator and currently the Chief Executive Officer of Back on My Feet, a national non-profit organization which operates in 12 cities across the United States. Back on My Feet combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.

Katy has been recognized across multiple media and news outlets including by The Economist’s Philanthrocapitalism programme as a leader in social innovation and cutting edge non-profit management and most recently a winner at the Philadelphia Social Innovation Awards.

Prior to working at Back on My Feet, Katy worked at Accenture, a global management consulting and professional services firm as an Executive in their Strategy Consulting practice leading large-scale strategy and operations projects for a variety of for-profit and non-profit clients ranging from leading Financial Institutions to the United Nations.

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Social Protection and Human Rights