An Exercise in Dignity : Program at Santa Monica Studio Helps Former Homeless, Drug Abusers Get Fit

Times Staff Writer

The scene at the trendy dance-and-exercise studio on Santa Monica’s Main Street starts out typically enough: Young upwardly mobile types in designer leotards bump and grind to loud rock music.

Then the scene changes.

Expensive, colorful Reeboks are replaced by older, tattered shoes that bear witness to time in the streets. Clothes might be gym trunks or sweat pants left over from high school instead of the latest from Danskin.

The transition comes as a regular class at the Main Street Dance & Exercise Studio is replaced by a group not usually seen in such hip surroundings: People who have been homeless or chronic drug abusers.


Psychological Benefits

Three nights a week, they attend free sessions of muscle-toning stretches, sit-ups, push-ups and other basic exercises. And while compared to the regular class the tempo is slower and the synchronization a little off, the smiles, groans and sweat are much the same.

The classes are part of a new “fitness and wellness” program offered by the exercise studio for a select group of people from the St. Joseph Center and Next Step, two Venice-based programs for the homeless, and from the Clare Foundation, a Santa Monica drug and alcohol recovery agency.

The program started last month and is still quite small, with only about 20 participants. But representatives of the agencies involved are eager to expand.


Exercise, they say, can play an important role in rehabilitation.

“For many people in the normal population, exercise is what keeps them glued together. Physical well-being contributes to mental well-being,” said Lisa de Mondesir, who owns the studio and came up with the idea of the classes.

“We pull them into another environment as a way to help them continue to make the transition” into mainstream society, said Kim Connell, who manages the studio and teaches many of the classes.

Organizers and participants rejected any notion that the classes might be a frivolous endeavor for people whose day-to-day life is a struggle.


To the contrary, they say, the classes help people rebuild self-respect and dignity.

Businesses Donate

“Homeless people need the fundamental basics. Food. Shelter,” de Mondesir said. “Beyond that, you’re dealing with what is going to allow them to function better, to raise them from their condition, to reintegrate into society. To do that, you need self-esteem and dignity. Exercise helps in every way: building your body, your esteem, a sense of yourself.”

After each session, the participants cool down, sipping N.Y. Seltzer waters donated by the bottler and eating freshly baked muffins and pastries donated by the 7th Heaven Bakery on Montana Avenue.


De Mondesir has been able to get donations from several businesses, some of which are owned by regular patrons of the exercise studio. A dance-wear company, Dance France, contributed leotards--though some of the participants have been reluctant to use them--and a company that runs several local restaurants, Grand American Fair, gave $250 to help defray teaching costs.

The classes are not for down-and-out vagrants but for the so-called “transitional homeless,” those who have already started to enter the mainstream, who are holding down a job and who have moved into some sort of housing.

They must be in adequate physical shape and show they are no longer using drugs or alcohol, de Mondesir said.

“These are people who have made the choice: They want to better their lives; they want to heal from what their lives have been,” de Mondesir said. “This is an important part in making their lives whole.”


And so far, participants such as Donna Clem seem to enjoy the classes, which she described as invigorating.

“You get a lot out of it just by going,” Clem said. “Even if you don’t lose 50 pounds, you’re doing something for your body, doing a little to get in shape.”

Clem, 38, attends with her 13-year-old daughter, Shotzie, who had been living with relatives and recently rejoined her mother. Through the Next Step program, Clem has moved into a small apartment after living for months in a 1973 Volkswagen with her small son and a male companion, who she said left her nearly penniless. She has also found a steady job.

Joseph Johnson Sr. says he had left his family and was “messing with drugs.” He drifted for about a year between motels and friends’ houses; a few times he ended up sleeping outdoors and, once, behind the pinball machines in an arcade.


Now he manages a group apartment for Next Step, works as a carpenter and is putting his life back together. The exercise classes, he says, are “wonderful.”

“It’s an outlet. You can release built-up emotions and energies and keep a positive frame of mind,” Johnson, 39, said. “If I weren’t here, I’d just be sitting in front of the TV, not doing anything. Here I can intermingle and relate to people.”

Several recovering alcoholics and addicts were equally enthusiastic. (They are from the Clare Foundation, which asked that their last names not be published.)

“There’s a lot of serenity in exercising,” said Kathleen, who for years worked as a prostitute to support her drug habit. She says she has kicked the chemicals and is now working as a nurse.


“During the day I get crazed. I work 10-to-12-hour days. From here (the exercise studio), I go back to work, but I know it’s OK. I’m in tune with my mind and body.”

Stan was moving from one “sleaze-bag hotel” to another along downtown’s Skid Row, gradually losing his clothes, his television set and, finally, his bowling ball. Some stuff he sold for drugs, other stuff he just lost track of.

“That’s what the insanity of drugs and alcohol will do,” Stan said. “This (the exercising) helps me get back in touch. I’m doing a lot of things I couldn’t.”

“When you’re getting high all the time, you just sit around, eating munchies. You get fat,” said Gilbert, who is beginning to shed some of those pounds. “You need something to replace the using, the habits. This is an opportunity.”


Experts say exercise helps recovering addicts transfer compulsive behavior to constructive activity.

“These guys can’t get high any other way now,” said Sandra Wolcott, one of the people who runs the Next Step program.

De Mondesir said the idea of offering classes to the homeless came after a homeless 19-year-old stole about $2,000 from the studio and was arrested. She decided to “turn the other cheek” and work to have him released from jail. His gratitude impressed her, she said.

At that time, de Mondesir had just returned from a trip to visit her father, Robert Freeman, who is chairman of the Community Food Bank in Atlanta. Freeman and the Rev. A. B. Short opened a restaurant for the homeless there that has received national attention as an innovative alternative to the traditional soup kitchen. Diners there are seated and order from menus.


“A lot of people have a misconception about who the homeless are in this country. Often, it’s a choice of survival that lands people on the street,” de Mondesir said. “There is a lot to do to rebuild these persons’ confidence so they can reintegrate into society. That is what we hope to effect.”