Skid Row run­ners mak­ing strides in pur­suit of new life

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESS in Los Angeles

Dawn is break­ing over down­town Los Angeles as a small group of men and women set off on a 10-kilo­me­ter run from Skid Row, the epi­cen­ter of the city’s home­less­ness cri­sis.

They are part of the Midnight Run­ners, an un­usual run­ning team made up mostly of re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts and home­less peo­ple seek­ing a new lease on life.

As they jog past an apoc­a­lyp­tic scene of side­walks lined with tents, card­board boxes and makeshift tarps, many in the group know they could eas­ily be among the thou­sands who call these streets home.

“It’s a wake-up call ev­ery time I walk out here of where my life could go if I keep mak­ing bad choices,” says Ken­neth Collins, 35, one of the lat­est mem­bers of the team, who is a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict and has been home­less on and off for the past 16 years.

Ac­cord­ing to the Los Angeles Home­less Ser­vices Au­thor­ity, there are around 47,000 home­less peo­ple in and around the city. About 6,000 live in Skid Row, a 50-block area that has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of home­less peo­ple in the coun­try.

Like sev­eral of his run­ning mates, Collins lives at the Midnight Mis­sion, a shel­ter and addiction cen­ter right in the mid­dle of Skid Row.

The run­ning club of­fers its mem­bers a ther­a­peu­tic out­let as they bat­tle to over­come years of addiction to drugs or al­co­hol as well as home­less­ness.

The brains be­hind the project is a Los Angeles judge, Craig Mitchell, an avid jog­ger who spends his days on the bench over­see­ing mur­der, rape and other felony cases.

Mitchell says he came up with the idea af­ter a man he had sen­tenced to prison reached out to him while on pa­role and in­vited him to visit the Midnight Mis­sion.

“He found his way back to my court­room and asked me to come down to the Mis­sion to meet the peo­ple in­volved in his re­cov­ery,” said the 60-year-old judge, sit­ting in his court cham­bers wear­ing a dress shirt, shorts and run­ning shoes.

“It was com­pletely hap­pen­stance. I was put on the spot on how I could help and I said, ‘How about a run­ning club?’”

Five years later, the club has be­come a main­stay, at­tract­ing run­ners who have par­tic­i­pated in marathons across the globe, from Ghana to Italy and, most re­cently this past sum­mer, Viet­nam.

“I would have never dreamt ... that I would one day be run­ning a marathon in Viet­nam and with, of all peo­ple, a judge,” said David Nor­iega, who joined the team last year as he fought drug addiction that led to a life of crime, home­less­ness and a to­tal 13 years be­hind bars.

“I mean, I’m an ex-con, and I’m run­ning with a judge who han­dles crim­i­nal cases,” added the 50-year-old fa­ther of four, his eyes of­ten welling with tears as he told his story.

“And when I came back from Viet­nam in the sum­mer, my kids were no longer ashamed to call me their fa­ther.”

Af­ter run­ning in the Los Angeles marathon this com­ing March, next on the bucket list of the Midnight Run­ners will be a marathon in Jerusalem in 2018.

The over­seas trips — which can run into the tens of thou­sands of dol­lars — are funded by do­na­tions and by the judge, who doesn’t hes­i­tate to foot the bill when it comes to buy­ing run­ning shoes for the 20 to 25 peo­ple on the team.

Mitchell said while he is con­sid­ered a men­tor by many of the run­ners — who also in­clude a pros­e­cu­tor, a crim­i­nal at­tor­ney and a movie ex­ec­u­tive — he has found they bring much mean­ing to his life.

“These are peo­ple I ex­pect to be my friends for the rest of my life,” he said.

Mitchell said he is well aware that some of the run­ners might end up again on the street or be­fore him in the court­room but that is no rea­son to give up on them.

“Any­one who works with peo­ple in re­cov­ery un­der­stands that a ma­jor­ity of them do not suc­ceed out of the gate,” he said. “But af­ter mul­ti­ple fail­ures, of­ten times there is a point at which they will figure it out.”

Michael Mitts, who was used to sleep­ing un­der bridges, by riverbeds or on the street un­til ar­riv­ing at the Midnight Mis­sion last June, said he joined the run­ning club to get back in shape only to dis­cover a group of peo­ple that ac­tu­ally cared.

“I had a very rough child­hood ... and I was about 18 when I be­came home­less,” said the 47-year-old.

“Here, not only does run­ning help me get rid of stress, but you have some­one who cares enough to do­nate his time and take us run­ning,” he added, re­fer­ring to the judge. “That’s pretty awe­some.”

MARK RAL­STON / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESS

Mem­bers of the Midnight Run­ners club take part in a 10-kilo­me­ter jog from Skid Row in down­town Los Angeles, the epi­cen­ter of the city’s home­less­ness cri­sis.

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