When people talk about all the new activity in downtown L.A., they probably are not referring to the 100 or so people in running gear who recently gathered before dawn at a park near Chinatown.
They were there to run a mile around Los Angeles State Historic Park — some running that far for the first time — and launch a chapter of an organization aimed at helping them cast off adjectives such as "homeless" or "jobless."
The group, a nonprofit called Back On My Feet operates in 10 other cities around the country, and on Monday it began its local effort to fight homelessness with running.
Back On My Feet was founded by Anne Mahlum, who came to believe in the power of running when her own world fell apart. At 16, living with her family in North Dakota, she learned her father had a devastating gambling addiction, which broke the family apart.
Eight years later, she was working in Philadelphia and running in the mornings, passing a homeless shelter each time. After a while, she developed a casual relationship with the men hanging around outside and had an idea — to start a running club.
Mahlum was told repeatedly that "homeless people don't run," that she was foolish to believe that running was a path out of homelessness. She didn't listen — and some of the men in Philadelphia joined her. That was in 2007, and officials of Back On My Feet say that in the last six years the organization has helped more than 1,000 people get jobs and more than 700 find homes.
In the L.A. area, Back On My Feet plans to work with the Union Rescue Mission, CLARE Foundation, Homeboy Industries, Long Beach Rescue Mission and U.S. Vets. Those who want to join must commit to running three days a week at 5:30 a.m. with volunteers.
Christopher Simpson, 45, signed on through the Union Rescue Mission for "the camaraderie" and because he wanted to get fit but didn't know how to start. He'd never run a mile before, he joked before the early morning run started, "other than running from the police."
His goal is a marathon — 26.2 miles.
Simpson is part of a residential program at the Union Rescue Mission in which he also attends L.A. City College, in hopes of becoming a cinematographer.
Dytanna Bailey, on a team of nine from the Long Beach Rescue Mission, finds the program inspiring. "It gets you literally back on your feet when you have been in a bad situation," she said, adding that she used to run three miles at a time — an end-of-semester requirement when she was a student at Oral Roberts University.
Her aim is her own home; she also wants to start a nonprofit she'll call Glorious Giving, to offer counseling and funds for people like her — who might have avoided homelessness if they'd had just a few hundred dollars for medical bills or rent.
The L.A. program is starting with 50 residential and 50 non-residential members, and after Monday, they'll run near their shelters.
But before the first run, everyone — including Mahlum and several corporate executives who support the program — gathered in a circle for warmup exercises with Tim Mann, the organization's L.A. program director, and the "serenity prayer" that starts and ends each run:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
There are incentives for the runners: new shoes and running clothes at the start and, later, financial aid for school, housing or other ventures.
After Monday's run, a fundraising breakfast was served for about 700 people — most of them in business clothes and running shoes — at the downtown Marriott, which works with the organization and has hired some of its members.
Back On My Feet also has a cheer: "Who are we? Back On My Feet! How long we gonna run? Forever!" Forever, one step at a time.
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