08/31/2015 09:11 am ET

Running Club Has Helped Bring 1,300 People Out Of Homelessness

"Running really is a metaphor for life."
<span>Anne Mahlum, center left, runs along with a group of men from Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission in Philadelphia, Tuesday,
Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Anne Mahlum, center left, runs along with a group of men from Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission in Philadelphia, Tuesday, July 3, 2007. Mahlum's group, Back On My Feet, has helped hundreds of homeless individuals find housing and employment.

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health, decrease stress, boost sleep and even change how you see the world, but can it really help the homeless become more self-sufficient?

The work of one nonprofit seems to suggest as much. Founded in Philadelphia in 2007 by marathoner Anne Mahlum, Back on My Feet is an unusual program that encourages the homeless to take up running as a means to improve their self-confidence and ultimately help connect them with employment opportunities and independent housing. 

It is doing just that. As reported by NationSwell, the results of the program -- which is currently running in 11 chapters nationwide -- are promising. Of some 5,200 homeless individuals reached by the program in eight years, 1,300 have moved into independent housing and more than 1,900 have obtained employment. The organization has logged more than 462,000 miles run since 2009. 

The idea came to Mahlum when she began to form a friendship with a group of homeless men she would encounter along the route of her regular 5:30 a.m. runs. She had picked up running as a means to deal with her father’s gambling problem and thought some of these men might also see their lives improve by upping their physical fitness.

As the Los Angeles reported, critics frequently told Mahlum the homeless “don’t run,” but she pressed on with her vision anyway, forgoing what a Channel One News feature called a "dream job" in the communications field and launching the running club.

A small group of the men, who were living at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, eventually joined her running club, with the shelter’s permission, and received a fresh pair of running shoes, running clothing and socks. 

There are certain expectations of the homeless individuals who participate in the Back on My Feet program. They must sign a dedication contract and agree to be present and on time for runs three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Longer runs on the weekend are optional.

If members meet those requirements and complete 30 days of the routine, they gain access to educational and job training programs and can apply to financial aid to help them find housing and gain independence. They can also continue to be a part of the club as alumni, helping encourage others starting on their own path to self-improvement.

Members of the program have also taken part in big races, including the Chicago Marathon, NYC Marathon and Boston Marathon. But as Mahlum explained to CNN in a 2008 feature, the running at the center of the program is essentially a means to an end, not the end itself.

"Running really is a metaphor for life," Mahlum told CNN. "There is always another mile. You just have to take it one step at a time." 

Alumni members of the program’s New York chapter would probably agree. One, Ryan, featured by NationSwell has already completed a half-marathon since joining the club seven months ago and is now studying to become a substance abuse counselor. Another, Jerry, works as a doorman and has his own apartment.


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