It's 5:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday at the Midnight Mission, corner of Sixth and San Pedro streets, the heart of homelessness. It's still dark.
Inside, some 250 men call the Mission home. Outside, in a gated courtyard, homeless people are allowed to gather and sleep. At this hour many are in tents, but many more are up and about. The scene is reminiscent of the makeshift campouts during extensive airport flight delays: overstuffed old suitcases, pushcarts piled high. Except nobody here is catching a plane.
Soon it will be light, and the runners of the Skid Row Running Club will emerge from the Mission. It's one of the last practice runs before the group travels to Italy for the 2015 Rome Marathon on March 22.
Today, they'll do seven miles. Saturday, they'll do 20.
The smell of marijuana smoke is all around. A few people in wheelchairs are selling cheap cigarettes.
"They're coming out. Rolling video," announces Gabi Hayes. She and her husband, Mark, are documentary filmmakers shooting Skid Row Marathon.
A homeless man who chooses not to give his name approaches the camera crew. He knows the group is off to Rome, and he's a fan. "Hey, you should take some of us with you to cheer you on," he offers.
The runners appear amid an almost red carpet–like hubbub and plenty of high-fiving: Donald, Mody, Rebecca, Eduardo, Oscar, Jonathan, David and Brian — each has his or her own backstory worthy of a movie-of-the-week. Ben, who moved out of the Midnight Mission in 2013 and now has his own room in Culver City, will join them later.
This group of homeless runners was formed by Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell in 2012, and it's a good thing he's around for the dawn run. Some of the runners are on "lockdown" and need Mitchell to sign them out.
"I leave my authority figure persona at the courthouse," Mitchell says. "I run as a friend — hopefully a trusted friend. Usually I end up pairing off with one or two runners, at which point we talk about matters ranging from the trivial to the profound."
In the middle of Sixth Street — there's virtually no traffic except for the SUV used by the film crew — the judge gives the runners a brief pep talk.
He congratulates David on becoming "gainfully employed," and everyone applauds. David, an artist, lived on the streets of Skid Row under a blue tarp for 10 years. Now he's clean and has an apartment in South Central and a job as a drug counselor.
Practice runs are most Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Hayeses have been filming their documentary for two years, but most of the time when they come to Skid Row, they don't bring cameras, preferring just to run with the group.
"For me, it's just to support the guys," Gabi says. "We're supposed to be close to them and help them transition back into society. And I think just being there, you feel like they appreciate it when you show up."
Gabi, who is petite, sweet-tempered and speaks with a gentle German accent, is the runner in the family, though Mark, a good-humored ex–New Yorker, did more than his fair share until he hurt his hip.
The two met when Mark was traveling in East Germany. They were married before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After they settled in the United States, they produced the 2011 doc One Germany, The Other Side of the Wall.
"They all see Gabi as the champion, this Wonder Woman," Mark says. "She is among the fastest in the group, if not the fastest. She's up there at the front and always circling around and catching up with each person. I was always in the rear with Rafael."
Rafael has been with the group the longest and wrote to Judge Mitchell, while he was serving nearly 30 years for a murder conviction, about how he turned his life around.
"Rafael and I enjoyed a friendship outside of the running club," Mitchell explains. "He asked to join, which I thoroughly encouraged. He is now the one I look to to help new runners who are just adjusting to the rigors and demands of distance running."
Arguably L.A.'s most physically fit judge, on Mondays and Thursdays Mitchell bikes from his home in Pasadena to downtown and dons his running gear in his chambers before joining the group.
His commitment is inspiring: He pays for their running shoes and covered four runners' airfare to Africa to run in the Accra Marathon in Ghana last year.
Mitchell explains, "I find that people in recovery are some of the most welcoming and honest people I have ever met. And when you start running, I'm not 'the judge' and they're not 'homeless.' We are all just trying to cover the distance."
Mark has watched that dynamic unfold, and says, "What I've learned from [Mitchell] is that you do not judge a book by its cover. You have to peel away. If you look at these people who are living on the street, they have just as much potential as anyone else, and that's proven to be true."
He says this philosophy bonds the group and gives them hope. "The judge is not a savior. He's the ringleader. The coach. He likes to run. He's already downtown, and figures, 'What the hell. Let's run.' It's kind of nice."
Since filming began in 2013, Rebecca and her son have moved out of the Mission's family housing into their own apartment, and she has a job as a surgical assistant.
Ben, a musician with neck tattoos, joined the running club at 300 pounds "desperate, sad, angry, lonely and dying," he explains. Now he's enrolled in the music program at Los Angeles City College. He's eager to get to Rome to explore early notated music.
Ben says, "People ask me, 'Rome? How do you get the chance to do that?' Well, you drink a lot, ruin everyone's lives around you, wind up in psych wards and hospitals.' That's the smart-aleck reply. I would hope someone sees our story and it gives them a sliver of hope of changing their lives as well."
The filmmakers found some Skid Row residents who distrusted them. They "are threatened by the camera, because they think we're trying to show the negative side of Skid Row, and they don't understand our project," Mark says. Gabi adds, "They've had bad experiences being filmed on Skid Row. So when we first came to the running club, we ran with them for six weeks without a camera, and still after half a year, or a year, they felt we were ripping them off."
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The residents believed that "making a documentary is a money-making enterprise," Mark says. "It just isn't. Unless you're Michael Moore. Period." In fact, the couple is accepting donations to complete the video, at skidrowmarathon.com.
The filmmakers attribute the transformations among the homeless runners to the fact that Mitchell pushed and pushed them to keep their eyes on the prize.
"Running helps you achieve goals," Gabi explains. "That's how it transcends. You feel like you have accomplished something in your life by finishing a marathon. That transfers over to your real-life goals. You're not afraid anymore."
At 6 a.m., among the gray industrial warehouse buildings that line Skid Row, the runners take off heading east, toward the Sixth Street bridge. The sun is coming out. "Let's do it," prompts Judge Mitchell, and they head into the light.