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Marathoner Helps Homeless Get Back on Their Feet by Running

By Mary Johnson | April 9, 2012 6:59am

MANHATTAN — A nonprofit is coming to New York to help those who are homeless, hit hard by addiction or just down on their luck find strength and independence — by pounding the pavement.

The group Back on My Feet is the brainchild of Anne Mahlum, a 31-year-old marathoner who overcame a troubled childhood by putting one sneaker-clad foot in front of the other. She's tried to help others do the same in eight cities across the country, and now she's coming to the Big Apple. 

“Our mission is not to create homeless runners; it’s to create self-sufficiency,” said Mahlum, the founder and CEO of Back on My Feet, which already operates out of Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

A Back on My Feet runner. The program aims to help the homeless by encouraging them to take up running.
A Back on My Feet runner. The program aims to help the homeless by encouraging them to take up running.
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Back on My Feet

Mahlum said she has partnered with five homeless shelters — four in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn — to bring the program to life in New York. The shelters include the Bowery Mission on the Lower East Side, Project Renewal in Washington Heights, Common Ground in Midtown, The Fortune Society in Hamilton Heights and Camba in Brooklyn.

Mahlum has been running since she was in high school, back when long jogs helped her cope with her father's addiction to gambling.

“Running became my saving grace and my outlet, and really made me feel strong,” Mahlum said.

She knew running could help others the way it had helped her. That idea became the inspiration for Back on My Feet, which she founded in Philadelphia five years ago with a group of hardscrabble men from a homeless shelter along her running route. 

The program organizes a group of volunteers and shelter residents who have passed a physical exam within the past six months for a minimum of three early-morning runs each week — with an option for longer jaunts on weekends.

If those involved in the program stick with it for 30 days, they advance to the next stage of the program, making them eligible for educational opportunities and job training programs, as well as financial aid that can be put toward a new suit for a job interview, or the first month’s rent for a new apartment.

Mahlum said the program has about a 50-percent success rate, measured by the number of participants who go on to lead independent lives with jobs and homes.

"The stuff that I remember, of course, is the emotional feedback that these guys give," said Mahlum, who has set a personal goal to run a marathon on every continent. "They like who they are. They’re being invited back home for Christmas."

Although the organization already has a presence in eight other cities around the country, Mahlum said the move to New York marks a particularly significant achievement.

“It was a second kind of springboard for us,” Mahlum explained. “[It] says a lot about the credibility of Back on My Feet.”

The group of runners from the five participating city shelters will get outfitted with a new pair of running shoes Monday, courtesy of Jack Rabbit Sports in Union Square. The next day, they will hit the streets for their inaugural run.

"Our first mile run is going to be from Central Park to Times Square, so these guys are really going to get to feel how amazing this can feel," she added.

"It’s going to be a really special day for them."