Homelessness and Hollywood: The Skid Row Running Club
Folklore suggests the streets of Los Angeles are paved with gold, but addiction and homelessness is the reality. Judge Craig Mitchell and the Skid Row Running Club have a solution: run marathons.
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According to estimates provided by the 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, the half a square mile of Downtown L.A. known as Skid Row is now home to 10,850 homeless people (0.28% of Los Angeles residents), signaling a 13% increase during the pandemic.
Yeah, Skid Row. It’s more than just a glam metal band from the 1980s. In the city with the largest homeless population in the USA (over 65,000), Skid Row has been known for its condensed homeless population for almost a century.
‘Condensed‘ because Los Angeles has a population density of 8,304/sq mi. Skid Row’s is 27,125/sq mi. The USA’s most densely populated city? New York, with 26,403 people per square mile, but the residents of Skid Row aren’t living in high-rise apartment buildings - they’re living rough in the most glamorously lionized city in the world. More observant visitors soon realize that Hollywood’s streets are not paved with gold.
Homelessness is not a problem confined to Los Angeles, of course. The Department of Housing and Urban Development counted around 582,000 unhoused Americans in 2022. 0.18% of the country’s population.
All should be damning statistics for the Richest Country in the World (by GDP), but the situation prevails. So, if the money isn’t trickling down as promised by America’s right-wing economists, what can be done?
For a dozen years, The Honorable Judge Craig Mitchell of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, California has been organizing the Skid Row Running Club, who “run to support participants overcome substance use disorder and homelessness.”
They run with people from Skid Row at 6am every Monday and Thursday from the Midnight Mission - a secular non-profit organization that aids in providing structure and transitional shelter for those suffering homelessness.
A brilliant (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) documentary film, Skid Row Marathon, was made about the running club in 2017. It tells the story of how The Judge (as he is affectionately known) came to start the group and follows the journey of several members to a more prosperous life via the medium of running marathons in Ghana, Rome, and New Delhi, as well as Los Angeles, of course. How’s that for creativity in running?
Having watched it a few times over the years, I feel immensely lucky to have had the chance to speak to The Judge about his incredibly important work with the Skid Row Running Club.
Let’s start with the easy questions…
Do you think homelessness is solvable?
“It's something that I've given a lot of thought to. If we, as a society, would commit ourselves to the resources necessary, I do. I think there are policy decisions that can be made that aren't being made.”
“If there was a quick fix to homelessness and addiction, we would have solved the problem a long time ago.”
“If, in American culture, we could incorporate the value of doing something of a volunteer, contributory nature... It's not a pillar of our culture. It's a very individualistic, self-satisfying culture.”
Behind all the ‘ifs’ are the relapsed cases he sees in his courtroom. With an effective solution not forthcoming from the powers that be, there is only so much that he can do, even as a top judge.
“In the context of individuals in my courtroom, we want to get them in a drug treatment program, and Medi-Cal [California’s federal healthcare program for low-income individuals] pays for 90 days of residential drug treatment, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry. 90 days is not going to overcome a serious meth addiction.”
How long would that take?
“If a person has a serious meth or fentanyl addiction, you need residential treatment for a minimum of a year with intense follow-up after that. If you're suggesting anything less than that, I don't want to talk to you.”
“But if you're willing to make that commitment, and you get someone in a 24/7 residential program - going to group sessions, individual counseling, 12-step meetings for that period of time - there's a good chance of success.”
The result of all that frontline experience of what is required, what works, and what is possible to be done within the existing system, the Skid Row Running Club became Judge Mitchell’s way of directly providing a solution to addiction and homelessness.
“When I look at the people who come into our program, the reason we have the success that we do is because of the amount of time we work with our runners. Mondays and Thursdays, we're together for two hours each session. On Saturdays, we are together for between four and five hours.”
“Outside of that, I'm always fielding phone calls from runners who may be close to relapse or there's a housing crisis. The other days that they're not running with us, they're going to 12-step meetings. Our runners have a support system.”
“Unless you are willing to marshal that intense support system, sobriety will be elusive.”
I’ve always had poverty and homelessness alleviation at the top of my list of charitable things to do. However, when I see government organizations failing to tackle the situation time and again, election after election, it’s easy to wonder if donating my time and money is the best thing to do, or if it is even worth it.
What can we - as individuals - do to help?
“Find an organization where you can volunteer. Figure out how much time you are able to give and see it through in the long haul.”
“People who are in recovery are incredibly grateful folks. They know that they've hit a real low point in their life and for someone to reach out and give of themselves - particularly give of their time - they will not go under-appreciated.”
“You don't want to be the person who goes down and serves lunch for five weeks, and then disappears. That is just reconfirming the worst for those people - [that they are] of insufficient worth for you to make a long-term commitment.”
Committing your time is important, but being actively present is the most important thing you can do. When I ask The Judge what a successful run looks like, he focuses entirely on the human capital that Skid Row Running Club provides.
“When you see the person who's just completed their run and there is a sense of accomplishment on their face and a palpable sense that they are with people? That means something to them.”
“People that suffer from addiction lead isolated lives. They’ve burned bridges with their family, marriages have dissolved, employers have fired them, children don't speak to their fathers or mothers.”
“When you create a program where they are surrounded by people who value them and want to listen to them, and make a big deal when they experience a sobriety birthday, or they've been three months clean and sober, that's important.”
The Judge’s commitment? On Mondays and Thursdays he wakes up soon after 2:00am and cycles from his home in Pasadena to the courthouse in DTLA. There, he does a little work before heading to Skid Row - less than a mile from his chambers - at 5:30am.
“I can't think of anything that would be more worthwhile than what I am doing those three days a week.”
Those in the program who run three days a week could be getting almost 10 invaluable hours of community support. While the time commitment from volunteers has to be intentional, the ensuing human connections are forged naturally, and it turns out that running with people is a brilliant way to do that.
As well as the weekday morning runs, there is a Saturday long run at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Pairing up with people who run at the same pace for 10-20 miles is the perfect opportunity to start new conversations and build new bonds.
“For a person in recovery to have my ear for two or three hours. When you have that type of intense interaction, it's a dynamic that I think is extremely beneficial.”
“Our runners can count on Craig Mitchell being there. Three runs a week, 52 weeks out of the year. I'm just a regular person who knows the importance of being there.”
His children are fully grown now with their own families but The Judge talks about being there for them, standing on the sidelines of their childhood soccer games and driving them to various functions. He understands the comparatively privileged life he afforded his children and he wants everyone to have at least a modicum of that feeling of community support and connection.
In terms of running, The Judge tells me he enjoys long runs because it allows him an opportunity to look inward. He thinks about what he’s doing right in terms of his family, but also in terms of his work. Long-distance runs afford him time to reflect on the pros and cons of decisions he needs to make in court.
He tells me about the things he sees in his courtroom on a daily basis. He rues “the power of methamphetamine and fentanyl to destroy lives.” He tells me about seeing the same faces over and again. The ones that have happy endings, where bad choices are followed by good choices, give him “a profound sense of gratitude, and happiness for the other person.”
Most importantly, with his organization, he has clear direction for exactly what all of us need to do to help alleviate the problem of homelessness and addiction in a way that no other public figure is doing, and he’s leading by example. We just have to join him.
But what if you don’t live in Los Angeles and there isn’t a similar program in your town?
“You don't need to run. Go do a literacy program with first graders. Go to a senior citizen home and hold somebody's hand and listen to them talk. There's a million and one things you could do.”
You simply need to commit to volunteering your time long-term. You will make a difference. You will help build the better world that most desire. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if everyone who could, actually did this?
What does the future look like for the Skid Row Running Club?
“I think it looks very positive. We continue to grow on a weekly basis. One or two new runners show up almost every run. It's a different dynamic than it was even five years ago, where it was just a handful of us running together. Now there's 70 to 80 of us on any given run.”
Of those runners, 80% are in recovery of some sort, with a large proportion of them living on Skid Row. The remaining 20% are people like The Judge who choose to volunteer their time, and maybe even bring other resources to the table, like employment opportunities and housing.
The Judge talks about how, because there are more people working with the group now, he doesn’t worry if his personality doesn’t mesh perfectly with someone in the program because there’s likely somebody else to make that connection, maybe even in a more meaningful way than he could have.
Whether he’s looked that far ahead or not, The Judge has not only built a network that didn't previously exist for Skid Row residents, but one that can continue to serve those people long after he hangs up his running shoes.
It’s a priceless human resource that would have been completely unimaginable for those Skid Row residents at their lowest ebb. Priceless because no amount of city budget could build it. Unimaginable because hopeless people struggle to believe there’s anybody left to help them.
As our conversation nears its end, he points to a photo by the window of himself with two program members in Germany. One was Ben Shirley from the documentary (which you must watch). The other one?
“That’s Brian Langston. Homeless and illiterate. He subsequently learned how to read, and he is now the IT director for LA Tourism. To see where he is in his life now? That's where there's hope.”
Hope, of course, springs eternal, but with the kind of work and dedication that Judge Craig Mitchell and the Skid Row Running Club puts in, the results are an inspirational blueprint that all of us can - and should - follow.
Event: Los Angeles River Ultrarun
5am Sat 09/09/2023 - The 7th Annual L.A. River Ultrarun
54 miles from Canoga Park to the Long Beach Lighthouse
Started by Nathan Cooke to raise awareness of the potential of the L.A. River, this unique run down the length of Los Angeles has become a mainstay of the Skid Row Running Club calendar.
Traversing multiple municipalities and varying terrain, Nathan ran the first one alone. This year, at least 20 runners are expected to run through knee-deep water and along the sun-beaten concrete of the man-made riverbed of the city’s main waterway.
Dare to join?
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