LA’s Skid Row runners find a ‘home’ in jogging team
Dawn is breaking over downtown Los Angeles as a small group of men and women set off on a six-mile 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 some 47,000 homeless people in and around Los Angeles. An estimated 6,000 live in Skid Row, a sprawling 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.
Running with a judge
“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 more and more 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 50year-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.
‘Someone who cares enough’
The overseas trips-which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars are funded by donations and by the judge himself 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 runnerswho 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. “The nicest thing is when someone will give me a hug and they’ll say what I hear far too infrequently from my own children’You know Judge Mitchell, I really love you.’“It doesn’t get much better than that.” — AFP