“Running is a beautiful thing. There is no better feeling I can explain than finishing a marathon. You have got to endure, it’s mind over matter, and shows if you put your mind to it you can do anything.”
These are the words of David Askew, who spent 10 years homeless – and who now runs marathons around the world.
His is one of many remarkable stories told in powerful new documentary Skid Row Marathon. The film follows a running group set up by Judge Craig Mitchell in 2011 for residents of the Midnight Mission shelter in the most notorious area of downtown Los Angeles and home to some of LA County’s 58,000 homeless population, showing how the simple act of running together, as a community, as a team, can lead to real-life change for people who have experienced homelessness.
“You have three days a week where you are spending a couple of hours with people who genuinely care about you. You can sort through your problems, celebrate your successes, if you are feeling down you are going to be with people who uplift you,” Mitchell explains. The Superior Court judge says his running sessions with the Skid Row Running Club act for him as “a regular tutorial in the fact that I need to make sure I hear and understand the backstory of all the people that come into my courtroom”.
It is part of my faith, that every human being has worth, has dignity, deserves to be respected and understood
This remarkable man has a habit of changing lives. In the early days, four or five runners – homeless, recovering from addiction, or recently released from prison – would join him. Now 40 or more join the 62-year-old and a team of mentors at 5.45am to pound the LA streets three times a week. And his fundraising has enabled group members to run marathons in Accra in Ghana, Rome and, earlier this year, in Jerusalem.
“It is the human interaction that is the magic component in our programme,” Mitchell says. And the numbers of people who need that support is spiralling before his eyes. “At this point there is not the political will nor the commitment on behalf of the wider community to seriously address it,” he adds.
“It is part of my faith, that every human being has worth, has dignity, deserves to be respected and understood. Homelessness or addiction doesn’t affect one-dimensional people. They are where they are because of a complicated series of events or circumstances. And if anybody is interested in doing anything about that, the complexity of their circumstances needs to be appreciated.”
And Mitchell, who previously worked as a high school teacher in South Central Los Angeles before turning to law, has first-hand experience.
“When I was in college I lived in my car,” he says. “I never thought of myself as homeless, but from this vantage point, I guess I was. I would go behind the restaurant where I worked and fill up buckets of water to take a shower. At certain points in your life, if you can get the right support and the right opportunity, your life can play out very differently.”
Mitchell took part in this year’s London Marathon (his 71st), and beforehand took time to go for a training session with The Running Charity, a group whose work with young homeless people, aged between 16 and 25, mirrors his own.
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
“It is a journey from A to B, spiritually, physically and mentally,” says Claude Umuhire, programmes officer with the charity, which works with young people in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle.
“We go into hostels, we take young people out for runs, we encourage people to set goals – a lot of the time these young people haven’t had anything to look forward to. Having them set goals and achieve them is something no one can take away from them.”
Like Mitchell, Umuhire knows the reality of homelessness. “I was homeless after dropping out of university. Once you are in a dark place, it is often hard to see a way out. Running with The Running Charity became a tool for me – a way of seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
“Once I got ready to go with the group I wasn’t homeless, I was just a person trying to go for a run. And when I finished the run I was a better person than I was when I started.”
Skid Row Marathon shows at 111 cinemas across the UK on May 9. Find a screening at skidrowmarathontickets.co.uk