Tai chi class offers SLC’s homeless a taste of stability amid the chaos

Couple offer practice of balance and movement, hot coffee and a couple of bucks to participants.

Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune A group of homeless people practice tai chi at the Salt Lake City Public Library, Thursday, March 2, 2017.

Bernie Hart's first piece of advice is "Don't worry." The second, "Don't think."

"Just follow," he tells the 31 homeless people standing behind him.

And so Nancy Freeman did. Rows back from Hart, a tai chi instructor, she focused only on mimicking his movements — pushing her palms above her head, stretching her sore muscles, sweeping her arms across her torso to release an invisible arrow.

When the 34-minute class ended, Freeman gathered her belongings: a clear ziplock bag holding a bar of soap, loose papers, a spiral notebook and a couple of wilted flowers. The others who joined in the exercise also picked up their things — among them a tan sleeping bag and a pillowcase stuffed with clothes — and left.

The small group of homeless people will return again to the small space in the basement of the downtown library next week. They meet there each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday to do tai chi at 9 a.m. as a stream of sunlight filters down from the windows upstairs.

The hope, Hart says, is that through the exercise, a slow-paced practice of balance and movement, these individuals will find stability in their lives. The activist started the informal program with his wife, Marita, in September.

For their first attempt at holding the class, the couple walked around the library, encouraging members of the homeless community who sleep on the perimeter under tarps and near shopping carts to join them for tai chi. Just one person did.

"I'm not qualified to do this," Hart recalled thinking at the time.

They continued, though, and each week more folks joined in. Now there are about 28 "regulars" who often bring friends with them from The Road Home and Salt Lake Mission shelters.

Fred Davis has been attending the tai chi lessons for five months. He arrives for the classes with a hug for Marita Hart and an update on his progress.

"It improves here," he said, pointing to his forehead. "I have short-term memory loss."

Davis was a dancer for some 35 years before he developed tremors that left him constantly shaking without medicine. He became homeless two years ago, bouncing between shelters and camping on the streets.

The tai chi, Davis says, gets his blood flowing and sharpens his focus.

"I need to keep moving as long as I can," he says with a deep laugh that sends his salt-and-pepper beard shaking.

Freeman heard about the program from Davis, initially teasing him that it was "just for old people." After trying it for the first time four months ago, she hasn't missed a session.

And when the class is done, Freeman heads upstairs to fill out job applications on the library's computers.

"It gives you momentum that carries throughout your day," she said.

Freeman, 65, began staying at The Road Home shelter six months ago. The challenge in overcoming her homelessness, she said, is complicated in that she doesn't have a government-issued ID and hasn't been able to get a replacement without a birth certificate.

Bernie Hart says many in the group face similar obstacles. And though he has no conclusive metrics to judge the success of the tai chi program, he believes firmly and passionately in its power.

"It's mental and physical, thinking a thought and then putting it into action," he said. "Tai chi slows down the process so you can start developing confidence."

For Reese King, who attended the class for the first time Thursday, the tai chi offered a chance to escape the rampant drug use and dealing that plagues the blocks surrounding the shelter..

"I assumed I'd find some peace," he said after the class.

As a "couple of enticements" to encourage folks to join, the Harts offer warm coffee, food and $2 to any participants. The couple is retired and the cash comes out of their pockets. Marita Hart said they might try crowdsourcing in the coming months — "hopefully before we run out of money," she joked.

King shuffles to the table outside the library to collect his share. His dirt-encrusted sneakers lined up next to Bernie Hart's brown and gray Sketchers. While the two chat, a couple of homeless men sleep under umbrellas next to a fountain. It reminds Hart why he started the tai chi program.

"Except for maybe a couple lucky events in my life," he suggests, "I could've been out here with these guys."