Running Judge Solves L.A.’s Homeless Crisis One Step At A Time

Southern California is currently in the grip of a homeless crisis.

One man making a difference literally one step at a time is Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell. He started a running club at the city’s Midnight Mission in the notorious Skid Row area in Downtown Los Angeles.

“It started seven years ago when an individual I sent to prison was paroled to the Midnight Mission down on Skid Row,” Judge Mitchell said. “He came back to my courtroom and asked if I would come down to the Midnight Mission and meet the people who he was spending his life with.”

The 61-year-old former schoolteacher and prosecutor went along. What he saw convinced him to lend a hand.

With three children in graduate school or college, Mitchell had few funds to spare back then. “So I said I can give up my time and I would try starting a running club.”

The Skid Row Running Club started small. Only three or four runners took part on a good day. But the popularity rapidly swelled. They now have around 35 people regularly taking part. Hundreds of people have been helped by joining the program.

He admits some of his fellow adjudicators are terrified at the thought of climbing down from their ivory towers to mix with the homeless. But Mitchell’s previous experience as a teacher in South L.A., where most of his students were designated “at risk,” has stood him in good stead.

“Some of my fellow judges say, ‘Oh my God, you go down to Skid Row. You don’t have any protection, you don’t take any law enforcement with you,’ ” he said. “My whole life I have been in the housing projects, I have been in very dicey neighborhoods, so this is nothing new for me.”

Twice a week the judge jogs with his band of runners through Skid Row. Every other Saturday they are treated to a more picturesque route as they run by the Pasadena Rose Bowl. They have also started running with other local running clubs and have made several trips to far-flung parts of the globe to run in marathons.

More Than Running

Mitchell said the reason for the club’s success is the way it shows addicts and those down on their luck that they can turn their lives around.

“First and foremost it gives people in recovery, people who are homeless, a sense of community,” he said. “Many of them have been estranged from their families for many, many years due to their drug use. This is a real opportunity to bond with a group of people that care about each other. That, I think, is the real draw.”

The chat is inevitably about the trivial during their long jaunts. But when the conversations turn more serious, change begins to be achieved.

“On our long Saturday runs, if you run 10 to 15 miles — and we inevitably pair off — you’re going to have an opportunity if you want to say this relationship is not going well with me, or these are the aspirations I had before I became addicted,” Mitchell said.

After learning of their stories, Mitchell calls upon his network of business and government contacts to help his charges, giving them the opportunity to transform their lives through work or education.

“Critical to our program is half of our members are what I would label mentors,” Mitchell said. “We have people from the business community, from the legal community, government. They run with us so they can partner with people who are facing some real challenges in their life and provide guidance and opportunities to move into employment and give them direction in terms of if they need additional schooling.”

The running club works. It has helped many people over the years go from living in the streets to becoming productive members of society. Its success has led to it being profiled in the award-winning documentary “Skid Row Marathon.”

“I’ve seen people who are days from their last use of drugs when they are at their lowest and now in meaningful relationships where they are gainfully employed and now living on their own. Major transformations,” Mitchell said.

Rafael Cabrera is one such man. A convicted murderer at 18, he joined the club after striking up a relationship with Judge Mitchell as he sought parole. The 53-year-old is now working for the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. Cabrera refers to the running club as his “second family.”

“Craig is something different; he’s not like everyone else,” Cabrera said of Judge Mitchell. “He’s like a dad. Being around Craig, it’s inevitable that you see changes in yourself too. He’s not running for office; helping others is something he’s done all his life.”

Empathy Led The Way

One reason that the judge is able to identify with his charges is he was homeless himself for a time as the UCLA graduate worked his way through college.

“I was living in my car,” Mitchell said. “I was working either at the cafeteria at the dorm in UCLA or I worked for a couple of years for a limo company in Los Angeles as a dispatcher. I didn’t choose to (be homeless); I had no money.”

Mitchell said that after his father remarried following his mother’s death, his father decided he was not going to help any of his children financially. But he was unable to qualify for financial aid due to his parent’s high income.

“I never really considered myself homeless, but in today’s definition I would be. I showered in the back of the hamburger stand I worked at. I poured hot water over my head ever morning; that’s how I showered,” he said. “But it was OK; it was temporary. I knew as soon as I got out of college I would be able to earn a wage that would let me get an apartment.”

Paying It Forward

But Mitchell admits he gains immense fulfillment from his good work as well, such as when he took 44 people to Israel and Jordan to run in a marathon last month. He said people were moved to tears as they set their eyes on Wadi Musa, the Valley Of Moses.

“I get so much out of it, just watching them expand their understanding and appreciation of what the world has to offer,” he said. “We had people who were literally crying as they stood there and looked at where they were, and appreciated two weeks ago they were in Skid Row living in a dormitory with 200 people.”

The staff at the Midnight Mission are grateful for the service he provides to the homeless.

“Judge Mitchell has a unique understanding of the community we serve and has dedicated his life to helping others, especially those living on our streets who are hungry and without a home,” the mission’s director of public affairs, Georgia Berkovich, said. “He is not only their team leader; he is their friend. They travel, eat, sleep, train, laugh and cry together. He has opened his heart and his home to the runners, creating a community of love and support. The Skid Row Running Club is a family through and through.”

Mitchell’s Keys

Superior court judge who helps the homeless on Skid Row.

Overcame: Living in his car as he worked through college.

Lesson: Anything worth accomplishing is not going to be easy. It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work.

“You do not have to do it alone. There are people willing to encourage you and support you.”


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