One Step at a Time: Running Down Homelessness

August 9th, 2011 in Articles by 7 Comments

It is not every day that your running partner is homeless. Or that the person pushing you toward the finish in that last mile is an ex-convict. But on Back on My Feet campuses across the country, this is an everyday occurrence.

Back on My Feet (BoMF) is a non-profit organization founded by Anne Mahlum in 2007. Mahlum’s mission is to use running as a means to help build life skills – such as discipline and goal setting – in homeless populations across the country.

“We are trying to help individuals change the course of their life and get them on a path that is filled with happiness and hope and self-sufficiency,” Mahlum said. “We design the environment around goal setting and helping people discover their potential – and that feels good, so it becomes more self-motivated than force-motivated.”

In addition to working with members in the program, Mahlum also hopes to create change in people outside the organization as well. She emphasizes the importance of language and how it can alter the way individuals are perceived. Instead of calling BoMF members “homeless,” Mahlum says that they are “individuals experiencing homelessness.”

“Instead of focusing on the differences between populations, look at the similarities. And [then] you don’t think of that person as homeless anymore, you think of them as a real person who happens to be experiencing homelessness – there is a difference between the two.”

Mahlum’s idea to solve homelessness with running is an unorthodox equation. But for her, the proposal wasn’t farfetched because it ran close to home.

“My dad was, and still is, a recovering addict – drugs, alcohol, gambling,” Mahlum said. “And I could never really figure out a way to help him, and running was sort of my own personal saving grace. So 10 years later, running by these guys that were standing outside of a homeless shelter, I just sort of felt really close to them… they reminded me of my dad, and that was how it got started.”

Mahlum took her idea and ran with it, facing many roadblocks along the way, such as hesitancy and doubt from many who did not believe she was capable of making a difference in homeless populations. While she received positive responses from individuals living in the shelters, Mahlum also encountered many dubious reactions from others on the outside looking in.

“Outsiders were a bit skeptical and thought that the whole idea was a bit naïve and [they] didn’t really understand the concept,” Mahlum said. But she stays true to creating an environment where individuals experiencing homelessness can build upon small achievements and get back on their feet one step at a time.

Participants must live in a shelter for at least 30 days before they are allowed to join a team. Teams run every other day, three times a week (M/W/F) between 5:30 and 6 a.m. The runs range from one mile to six miles in distance, with longer optional runs on Saturdays.

“We run three days a week. And not everybody has to run a marathon. You kind of start setting and determining your own goals. And we have people who never ran more than five miles, and that’s fine if that’s the distance that they’re comfortable at – but the difference in [our] organization is that the motivation has to be voluntary.”

Although BoMF provides resources such as job training, educational scholarships, and housing assistance, the organization does not give handouts. Members must show a commitment to their teams and to themselves in order to move forward in the program. According to the BoMF Web site, “Attendance, mileage and attitude are tracked on every run and this is the data we reference to advance members in our program.” So as long as members maintain a 90% attendance rate at morning runs, they are able to stay in the program and access comprehensive benefits that are crucial in helping them move forward and become more self-sufficient.

“They have to continue to make an effort to move their life forward; so as long as we’re seeing that, we’re in support of them being in the program. We provide an environment and an opportunity for people in attempt to help them take advantage of it,” said Mahlum.

But Mahlum also emphasized that BoMF is not just helping people better their lives, it is also an organization that focuses on helping outsiders see beyond the stereotypes and stigmas that society has created.

“A big part of our mission is also social change – trying to change the way people see homelessness and people who are experiencing homelessness. It’s not the person on the corner who is begging me for money or the person who is badgering you – that is not the face of homelessness. Many people who come through this issue don’t want to be homeless, they just don’t know how not to be homeless. So we’re trying to be that resource for them, trying to change perceptions and attitudes toward this population and our program. Just because running and homelessness doesn’t usually go together, [it] has the ability to give people a better understanding of the individuals who currently don’t have a home.”

In the end, the biggest thing that Mahlum wants people to take away from her program is to not judge people by where they are in their lives. Instead, BoMF shows the importance of just meeting people where they are – even if it is on the starting line.

“The more people we can get exposed to our organization and have them see the similarities that exist between people who are experiencing homelessness and themselves, you create social change,” Mahlum said.

Now, BoMF has chapters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston, Dallas, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Atlanta. The organization has hopes to expand to Los Angeles, as well as internationally.

“Both are ideas that we’ve had, we’re just not ready to do them yet, but obviously there is a lot to accomplish on our own turf in the U.S., so we want to make sure that we have a really good handle on that before going to another country, another very unfamiliar place, and learning about how the issue is solved internationally.”

If you are seeking more information on Mahlum’s story or volunteer opportunities in locations near you, visit www.backonmyfeet.org.

D’Ambour Lewis is a junior sprinter and jumper at the University of Maryland. She is a journalism major who contributes features to Faster Than Forty. Contact her here.

 

Author: FasterThanForty

7 Comments

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D'Ambour Lewis

8/10/2011

Way to go young lady. You are gradually perfecting your craft. Nice!
~EmF

E.M.F.

8/11/2011

Great program and great article!

JV

8/11/2011

Great Job on the article D’Ambour. This program is amazing!!! Very inspiring!!!! It will definitley make me look at people “Experiencing Homelessness” different. Love you…”Auntie Dre” (08/14/2011)

Andrea Collier

8/14/2011

I always knew you had it in you girl you are tough i love u so keep doing what u do Kim

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