In 2007, Anne Mahlum was living in Philadelphia. She had a habit of waking up early to exercise; each morning, her route took her by a homeless shelter. Even at dawn, there were people out in front. One morning, they waved. As Mahlum built up a rapport with her early-morning neighbors, she started thinking: Why am I running past them when I could run with them?
Mahlum had started running as a teenager to cope with troubles at home. Maybe, she thought, running could help other people the same way it did her?
So she brought some sneakers to the shelter and asked if any of the residents wanted to join. They did. Those first early morning runs have since grown into a national nonprofit, Back on My Feet, which brings homeless individuals together three times a week at 5:30 a.m. for a run, and connects them with employment and housing resources. Mahlum left in 2013 to open a fitness studio, but Back on My Feet has spread to 11 cities and helped more than 5,500 members—placing over 2,000 in jobs and around 1,500 in more permanent housing.
In the fall, Back on My Feet will launch in San Francisco. “It’s the city that needs the most help now,” says CEO Katy Sherratt. When looking where to establish Back on My Feet chapters, Sherratt says the organization assesses a number of things: Is there a strong running community? Do Back on My Feet’s corporate partners have a presence? Does the city host races and marathons? (The organization is financed by sponsored runs and donations from individuals and large companies.)
San Francisco meets those requirements, but ultimately, the needs of its homeless population drove the decision to expand there. An estimated 6,600 people are without a permanent home in San Francisco, at least according to the city’s latest count, and a lack of shelter space and high rate of chronic homelessness make people who are living on the street particularly visible. Their enduring plight means “we need new and innovative solutions that try and break the cycle and address the problem in a different way,” says Jim Godfrey of the Pramana Collective, a PR firm that’s helping bring Back on My Feet to the Bay Area.
A running community is one of those unexpected solutions. Back on My Feet asserts its counterintuitive approaches have worked. “Sometimes, I have to defend it—people don’t often see how running can help the homeless,” Sherratt says.
Like training for a marathon, the program starts slow. Members must maintain a 90 percent attendance rate for 30 days before moving to the “Next Steps” phase, which provides job training, educational support, employment referrals, and housing assistance. Eighty percent of members reach this point. After that, they’re expected to secure a job—90 percent of Back on My Feet alums have maintained their employment six months out and 60 percent earned a raise, Sherratt says.
Back on My Feet works with an independent consulting firm, PA Consulting Group, to validate its economic impact. By boosting employment and lowering costs for hospitalization, incarceration, and treatment for addiction, Back on My Feet claims that for every dollar put into its programs, $2.39 goes back into the community.
For Eugene Hardy, an alum from the Atlanta chapter, the program came just in the nick of time. Hardy recalls returning from combat in Afghanistan to a foreclosed house and a departed wife. “I went from having a nice amount of income saved to having nothing,” he says. “The chance of making a difference with my life felt so slim.”
Hardy joined Back on My Feet three years ago and eventually got a full-time job at Chick-fil-A. He still wakes up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to join other members on their runs: typically three-mile jaunts lasting no longer than an hour. Hardy says he considers them family. “They loved me past my pain,” he says.
Could the program help homeless San Franciscans the same way? It’s early to tell, but at least one local advocate—Kara Zordel, the executive director of Project Homeless Connect—thinks it shows promise.
“You have to start with engagement before you can even think about housing,” she says. The experience of homelessness is often one of isolation and disenfranchisement; the focus, self-esteem, and community cultivated through running creates a bridge to a more sustainable, stable life. “It gives people hope; it gets people stabilized,” Zordel says.
But San Francisco’s housing crisis, she adds, could hinder Back on My Feet’s goal of moving people from running to job-training to housing all within a year. The Bay Area has a severe shortage of the kind of affordable housing the program typically depends on.
Sherratt says Back on My Feet is prepared to approach housing in San Francisco with flexibility. The program will consider helping members look for housing in neighboring cities and towns, where resources are less stretched. It might also try a public-private partnership model that’s been successful for its Indianapolis branch, in which a real estate company and a foundation partnered to refurbish an apartment complex to house members at a reduced rate.
As the economic gulf between wealthy newcomers and homeless residents becomes more and more glaring around the Bay, there’s plenty of resentment and blame to go around. But at 5:30 a.m., when members and volunteers and corporate board members are stretching before a three-mile run, perhaps those class divisions will be less palpable. In a moment like that, it’s possible to believe Zordel’s vision: “We need people to understand that we’re all created as one.”