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Opinion

Op-Ed: A judge’s marathon training helps people rise from skid row. Why not try more small programs?

LOS ANGELES, CA., MARCH 14, 2013: Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell (center) coaches a group of re
Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell, center, coaches a group of residents from the Midnight Mission just before their 6 a.m. run through downtown Los Angeles on March 14, 2013.
(Los Angeles Times)

For all of living memory, the city of Los Angeles has been confounded by what to do about the people who wind up on skid row after something goes terribly wrong.

The issue is daunting in large part because the people now on the streets and in temporary shelters suffer from many of the thorniest problems that America faces, including drug addiction and alcoholism. Some have criminal convictions that make it difficult for them to reintegrate back into society. Skid row’s density and persistence as a magnet for desperate people induces a kind of paralysis; sometimes it seems as though dysfunction on skid row is as inevitable as gridlock at rush hour. If policymakers haven’t solved the problem by now, how likely is it that they ever will?

Yet a few unusual souls react differently. Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell is one of them.

Mitchell is a character in “Skid Row Marathon,” a prize-winning documentary now on the film festival circuit. In its opening scene, Mitchell sentences a visibly devastated man to life in prison. He may seem to lack compassion. As it turns out, however, the duty of imposing mandatory minimum sentences is a hated aspect of his job. It often forecloses the possibility of helping the defendants who come before him to achieve redemption and contribute to society.

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Surely Craig isn’t the only public servant who sees a need to help the homeless beyond what the often-dysfunctional system offers.

Years ago, after visiting the Midnight Mission, a skid row nonprofit founded in 1914, Mitchell, a dedicated runner, had an idea to help people in a way he couldn’t in court. Perhaps if he started a running club for the needy, the discipline of training for a marathon and the camaraderie of doing so with others would instill a vital sense of purpose and self-worth.

Participation would require waking up very early in the morning, again and again for months on end, and pushing through all the mental and physical pain that it takes to build up to 26.2 miles.

As a carrot, Mitchell raised money to take as many runners as possible on an international trip to compete in an organized marathon. One was in Ghana, another in Rome.

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Every year, a handful of runners have succeeded in turning their lives around, thanks not only to the training regime, but also to the personal bond they formed with its organizer.

Mitchell became a friend, and they didn’t want to let him down.

By the end of “Skid Row Marathon” the project’s appeal and uplift are undeniable. But does it offer any larger lessons? A skeptic might argue that Mitchell’s approach is too idiosyncratic to scale. International plane tickets are expensive. Marathon training won’t work for everyone. It might not even work for most people. So any success that the approach has is worth celebrating, but it hardly offers a viable solution to the massive societal problem that is skid row.

Mitchell’s successes are nevertheless notable in a neighborhood where happy endings are rare and where scalable government programs to deal with addicts and convicts often fail, in part because they lack the human touch that helps to raise some people out of poverty.

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Surely Mitchell isn’t the only public servant who sees a need to help the homeless beyond what the often-dysfunctional system offers, even if he is unusual in the initiative he took to implement his insider’s insights.

If modest funding were available to similarly frustrated judges — or public defenders, or paramedics, or social workers — for other small, idiosyncratic interventions on a trial basis, some of these niche efforts would no doubt bear fruit. Maybe Google employees, who famously get to spend a portion of their time pursuing a pet project, would join in. Small-scale programs might do more cumulative good more efficiently than mass scale efforts.

Why not try? None of the alternative courses pursued by city leaders across the decades have yet succeeded in transforming skid row into a place associated with anything resembling hope.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism newsletter.

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