Skid Row

The Skid Row Running Club’s morning route crosses iconic landmarks in Downtown LA like the 1st Street Bridge. (Chris Mortenson/Staff)

It’s 6 a.m. and 42 degrees outside as a group of 50 runners gather on the corner of 6th and San Pedro. Some of them are wearing T-shirts that say Skid Row Running Club. Their occupations range from lawyers to teachers to day workers. There are recovering addicts, volunteers and adrenaline junkies that all have one thing in common — three times a week, they meet up to train for the New Delhi Marathon.

For the last 11 years, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell and the Skid Row Running Club have trained for half and full marathons as part of the Midnight Mission’s Health & Wellness programming. Their morning route loops six miles through Downtown LA and Skid Row, where 8,000 people live on the streets and 8,000 more in shelters. Each year, the group plans one international trip, and on Feb. 22 around 60 runners will depart for New Delhi, India.

“I went to Egypt and Ecuador and the Galapagos,” said Eric Barrera, listing all of the international marathons he’s completed with the Skid Row Running Club. “I am excited (for India). Leaving for two weeks is always stressful, so I don’t feel like I actually get to enjoy it until I’m there.” 

Barrera said running marathons wasn’t something he had planned on doing, but once he finished his first, he quickly felt like it was something he wanted to do again. Barrera came to the Skid Row Running Club as a former army veteran suffering from addiction. Now, he works with the LA Department of Mental Health, helping veterans connect with resources for homelessness and addiction.

The Skid Row Running Club was first founded in 2012 by Mitchell through the Midnight Mission’s Health & Wellness Department as a way to provide community to those experiencing homelessness. The group leverages running to keep its members focused on not only their well-being but the well-being of their fellow runners through fostering mentor-mentee relationships.

“(The club) provides a sense of community. People who suffer from addiction or homelessness — it’s a very isolating experience,” Mitchell said. “They’ve burned bridges with their family members, they’ve lost jobs, they’ve separated from children. To once again be welcomed and loved by a group of people is transformative.”

And the Skid Row Running Club truly welcomes everyone, whether they are former gang members, had previously been incarcerated or are drug and alcohol counselors who want to share their journey to sobriety. Mitchell was inspired to create the club after a young man he sent to prison, Roderick Brown, invited him to the Midnight Mission after his release.

Mitchell said Brown was paroled there and wanted him to meet the people instrumental in his recovery. When he arrived, the president of the mission at the time asked what Mitchell thought he could do to contribute to their program, so he came up with the Skid Row Running Club.

Over the last decade, Mitchell and those who’ve joined the Skid Row Running Club have turned the group into a tightly knit community through the simple act of running, with more members joining every week. For many, that community is what keeps them returning every week.

Michael Shea, one of the runners heading to New Delhi for his first international marathon, said he was skeptical about joining the club at first. Even though he was already training for a marathon himself, he didn’t want the fact he was homeless to define his training experience.

“I was skeptical because I didn’t want a pity party club,” Shea said. “At that time, I was experiencing homelessness. I had just moved from the Midwest (and) I was staying with the VA at the tiny shelters. I didn’t want that to be a factor … but then I saw everybody is just a runner.”

In January, the Los Angeles Longitudinal Enumeration and Demographic Study conducted by RAND Corp. showed homelessness was up 13% in Skid Row in 2022. Founded in 1914, the Midnight Mission helps organize the Skid Row Running Club and offers shelter, 12-step recovery and job training to the Skid Row community. They also offer family living through their “Homelight” program, an amenity less common among homeless shelters.

Andrew Vargas, one of the Skid Row Running Club’s newer members, joined the group after he began living at the Midnight Mission. He said he suffered a brain tumor that caused him to lose 75% of his memory. Even though he can’t remember his family, he said he feels love in his life because of this group. He recalled how welcoming the club was when he first joined eight months ago.

“They assist you in every way,” Vargas said. “In the beginning, they would run with you and help you and motivate you. They just have open arms. Everybody here has a face — some are in recovery, some are not — I don’t know, and I don’t want to (because) they don’t ask you these questions. All they do is welcome you as an individual first.”

Vargas will be one of 60 runners departing for India on Feb. 22 at 8 a.m. to run the New Delhi Marathon on Feb. 26. For him and many others, it will be their first time on an airplane. This year, athletes from the Skid Row Running Club participated in the Firecracker 10k, and the Los Angeles and Pasadena Rock ’n’ Roll half marathons. Just a few weeks after returning from India, several runners will turn around to run the LA Marathon on Sunday, March 19.

The Skid Row Running Club meets every Monday and Thursday at 5:45 a.m. in front of The Midnight Mission. The club is open to anyone and welcomes anyone who wishes to join.