Some homeless New Yorkers are getting a running start on creating new lives. The Back on My Feet program spurs them into instant action in New York and eight other cities with a simple plan: Go for a run at dawn.
Those who do it three times a week for a month are then offered job training, education -- and whatever else it takes "to get my life back," said Albert Davis, 20, a native of Alabama who lives in a Manhattan shelter.
"People tell me I have a beautiful voice, and I hope I can make money singing," said Davis, who became homeless when he aged out of the foster system that cared for him after his parents died.
For now, he'll learn computer skills to make a living.
On a nippy spring morning in Central Park, he joined about 50 runners plus volunteer mentors covering a mile to Times Square. Some breezed along, others struggled. Somehow, they all made it to the New York Marriott Marquis, where they met corporate sponsors for breakfast. The Marriott chain has employed dozens of former homeless people in its hotels.
The Back on My Feet nonprofit was started five years ago in Philadelphia by Anne Mahlum, who turned to running as a teenager to help overcome the devastation of her parents' separation.
Years later, as a college graduate in Philadelphia, she was still running. Each morning, Mahlum passed a homeless shelter.
"The men would joke and ask me if all I did was run all day," she said. "And I'd say, 'And all you do is stand there all day?' "
Some were battling addictions, and she suggested to the shelter director that if the men started running, it would "boost their confidence." Nine did.
Mahlum speaks with the kind of intense energy that has attracted major sponsors to her cause, including the New York Road Runners organization, which hosts the city's famed annual marathon. Last year, competing runners raised more than $100,000 for Back on My Feet.
"Running is just the first step we take to create a brand-new identity for people," she said.
Back on My Feet also has helped place members in jobs with companies like Enterprise and Bimbo Bakeries, in restaurants and call centers, or doing maintenance, plumbing, carpeting and security work.
"Trying to help people who are homeless get back on their feet takes a multifaceted approach, and you're not exactly sure what will work," says Seth Diamond, New York's commissioner for homeless services, which work with Mahlum to recruit participants at five New York shelters.
Of 400 Back on My Feet participants nationwide, about half are living independently.