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Taking Back Independence: Cycling Club for Homeless Women

By Frantiska Blazkova

We’ve all seen situations where a little push can mean a world of difference. Reclaiming one’s freedom by bits is a very important act and Sustrans London know it well. It’s a grassroots charity organization that is “making it easier for people to walk and cycle”. Last year, two of their members joined forces with Queen Mary homeless women’s hostel in London, which is run by the housing association Riverside, to provide the less fortunate with a confidence boost and a stepping stone towards independent living.

The world can be a hostile place to those who fall on hard times and so can be the urbanscape and infrastructure. If you for some reason fall off the wagon, it can be a very isolating and oftentimes mental health damaging experience. The Queen Mary hostel staff, who are experienced mental health practitioners, strived to create a welcoming environment where small achievements and first steps mean a huge change. After they reached out to Sustrans, they launched a 10-week pilot project, which proved to be so successful it recently received funding of £10,000 from Cycling Grants London to continue the club for another three years.

So, how does it look when the club meets? Every cycling session starts with a reflective session in the tea room. Eleven women discuss their motivations, goals, and progresses from last week. Then, supported by Westminster council’s training instructors, they train cycling behaviour patterns somewhere off the road. Cycling in a straight line, looking over one shoulder, turning, keeping going. It might seem like a series of simple tasks but we must consider that these women were faced with significant challenges throughout their life. Many have low levels of fitness. All are survivors of dire situations ranging from social isolation to dependence and abusive relationships. Sometimes, they might feel tired, unmotivated, or dizzy because of their medication. For them, it’s much needed reintroduction to the so called “normal life”. Besides bike handling, they are being taught basic maintenance, such as tyre pumping, or map-reading and route-planning skills.

“I love being part of the cycling club,” says Brandy, who has been living at the hostel for two years. “The club has given me the chance to ride a bike, which I hadn’t done since I was a child. I now am able to explore our city’s parks and green spaces on my bike. Cycling helps me relax, stimulates my mind. It also makes me a bit tired in the evening, which means I can get a good night’s sleep.”

According to the Mental Health Foundation, homelessness and mental health often go hand-in-hand. Poor housing or living on the streets can increase the chances of developing a mental health problem, or severely worsen an existing condition.

Studies have shown that physical activity can be used to overcome and even prevent stress, depression and anxiety. It can be as effective as medication and counselling, and a cheaper route to coming at peace with oneself. However, women are still less likely to participate in such activities and studies tell us that the main reasons for this are societal pressure connected to appearance judgement and logistical obstacles – they still carry out most of the tasks connected to child and household care.

Cycling club might look like a minor help for a person battling existential crises and mental health issues but to feel acknowledged and seen, and gaining independence by your own means of transportation does wonders for improving confidence and sense of self-worth. The key is to act local and target ostracised groups and get them involved. And cycling is a great and fairly inexpensive tool to do just that.