KPSOM Community

The Long Run Against Homelessness and Addiction

KPSOM faculty and students go the distance with Skid Row Running Club to help change lives

November 01, 2023

KPSOM faculty members accompanied the Skid Row Running Club to India for the 2023 New Delhi Marathon. (Photo courtesy of John Su)

KPSOM faculty members accompanied the Skid Row Running Club to India for the 2023 New Delhi Marathon. (Photo courtesy of John Su)

As the sun rises over downtown Los Angeles, a disparate group of about 30 people assembles in front of the Midnight Mission on San Pedro Street, in the heart of the city’s infamous Skid Row. Many are currently or formerly unhoused, or battling addiction; they are joined by supporters and friends from widely different backgrounds. Among them are business persons, members of law enforcement, lawyers, doctors, mental health counselors, and government workers. And on many of these mornings, faculty members or students from the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine.

From there, they run – past skyscrapers and apartment buildings and tent cities, over bridges and through streets marked by extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Every Monday and Thursday at 6 a.m., with this roughly five-mile run, the Skid Row Running Club uses fitness to help its members focus on health and well-being and lift themselves out of at-risk life on the city streets. 

“The people I've met in the running club have shared their stories with me and inspired me,” said Maureen Connelly, MD, MPH, Associate Dean of Academic and Community Affairs, who runs with the club regularly. “It's just this eclectic group, who are sort of all together, running. I'm one of the very slowest, and I was as welcome as people who are, you know, running marathons in under two and half hours.”

Connelly is among a handful of KPSOM faculty and students who have become involved with the club in recent years. Some volunteer to provide basic medical support at marathons and other events, others act as advisers, and some simply run alongside club members for fitness and an opportunity to learn more about the community. Although this involvement with the running club is informal and not part of the curriculum, it is reflective of the school’s engagement with the people of Skid Row, founded on a partnership with the JWCH Institute Inc. Medical Clinic (aka the Wesley Health Center), a Federally Qualified Health Center, where KPSOM students have been embedded since 2020 via the Service-Learning course. It is also reflective of a wider interaction between students and underresourced communities, through the Service-Learning practicum and other opportunities, in which they experience the positive effects on health and well-being that come from exposure to the arts, advancing social and environmental justice, access to community gardens, housing advocacy, local empowerment, and more.

“KPSOM’s involvement in Skid Row is extremely important,” said Lori Carter-Edwards, PhD, MPH, Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Government Affairs. “Respecting the lived experience of this unique community and supporting people experiencing homelessness requires being present, learning, reflecting, and serving. Los Angeles has the largest epidemic of homelessness in the nation, and it intersects so many elements of health.”

The Skid Row Running Club was founded by the Hon. Craig Mitchell, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge who was elected to the bench in 2005 and presides over felony criminal trials in a downtown courtroom. (Note: Mitchell has currently taken a leave of absence from the court and has announced his candidacy for Los Angeles County District Attorney.) Mitchell started the club in 2012 after a man  who’d been tried in his courtroom and served a prison sentence invited him to visit the Midnight Mission and meet the people there. The mission is a fixture in the downtown community, a nonprofit dedicated to drug and alcohol recovery programs and offering a variety of assistance to those most in need.

Mitchell wanted to help, but he had three children in college and wasn’t able to give financial assistance. However, he’d been an avid runner for 15 years, so he offered his time and passion for running as a way to help lift people up. The club started with just a few participants and has evolved into a large and regular group that not only runs together but also has members competing regularly in the Los Angeles Marathon. The club has sent runners around the world to run in marathons in Rome, Ghana, Vietnam, Israel, South America, and other places; its theme is "Transforming Lives One Run At A Time.”

There is a large body of research demonstrating the beneficial effects of exercise on physical and mental health, and that running can be an effective part of drug and alcohol addiction treatment. Mitchell believes the group also benefits its members on a more fundamental level.

“There are so many little things that emanate from this very basic idea of just running,” said Mitchell, known simply as “the judge” to members. The club, “...[G]ives people in recovery, people who are homeless, a sense of community," he says. "Many of them have been estranged from their families for many, many years due to their drug use. This is a real opportunity to bond with a group of people that care about each other."

Bringing people from different professions and from organizations like KPSOM into the running club is part of a strategy to recruit mentors, who are critical to the program’s success, Mitchell added. Their presence offers guidance and inspiration to those in recovery, and sometimes they also help with the rigors of the road.

“Yes, the judge likes to call us mentors,” said John Su, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Health Systems Science and a Family and Sports Medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente. “Some of the club members are newer to distance running, so we provide training advice and moral support on long training runs. Being a sports med doc, typically I am the guy to get a phone call or message to talk somebody through some aches and pains they might be going through. But honestly I feel I’ve learned more than I have taught.”

KPSOM faculty member John Su (left) at the 2023 Los Angeles Marathon. At right is Brian Charest, Assistant Professor of Education with the University of Redlands, who also volunteers with the run club. (Photo courtesy John Su)

KPSOM faculty member John Su (left) at the 2023 Los Angeles Marathon. At right is Brian Charest, Assistant Professor of Education with the University of Redlands, who also volunteers with the run club. (Photo courtesy John Su)

Su is an experienced runner who competes in major marathons and follows a serious training regimen. In 2020, shortly after he began his role as the KPSOM Service-Learning lead at the Wesley Health Center – located on South San Pedro Street in downtown Los Angeles – Su became aware of the runners gathering early on Thursday mornings just down the street at the Midnight Mission. His involvement grew from twice-a-week runs to joining the Skid Row Running Club’s contingent of about 60 runners and mentors who ventured to India in February 2023 to compete in the New Dehli Marathon, the group’s most recent overseas trip.

Also joining the India trip was Su’s wife, Angeline Ong-Su, MD, KPSOM Instructor of Clinical Science and a family medicine preceptor at Kaiser Permanente Panorama City, where she is Assistant Chief of Family Medicine. Su and Ong-Su were ostensibly there to assist with runners’ aches and pains, nausea, and other common travel issues; Su was in training for the then-upcoming Boston Marathon at the time, and had not planned to run the full 26-mile course in New Delhi. But the enthusiasm of the club members, many of whom had never traveled outside the U.S. before, inspired him to push himself.

“Preparing for the trip, I read about the horrible air pollution in New Dehli and the scientist in my head was thinking about all those particulates ending up in our lungs,” Su recalled. “And as I was flying out there I was looking for every excuse not to run the full marathon. I was thinking of all these potential ways I could weasel out of it. So I wake up [on race day] at 3 a.m. to get ready, I get on the marathon bus, and you can hear the excitement of the folks who’ve trained for months. For some, it’s their first marathon and they’re nervous and excited. No one is complaining about the air pollution or anything. They may have had niggles or pains here and there, but now they’re just excited and ready to race. And there’s none of the conversations you typically hear with quote-unquote serious running peopleabout which super shoe they’re wearing. Everyone’s just happy to be there.

“So I'm sitting on the bus thinking, OK, I'm gonna pull out at mile 13 or something. But I had no valid excuse, so I ran. I wound up running the whole thing and had a blast. Cheering people on, seeing your fellow teammates who are out there, struggling together, and it was awesome. It was great to share that incredible experience with everyone.”

The club also espouses travel as a way to gain perspective, a reward for hard work, and a key to recovery, and so the India trip included a week of post-marathon sightseeing to the Taj Mahal and other locations, including the Maldives. Su said the experience allowed for bonding among the runners and mentors on a deeper level than what’s possible on a typical run. “We were together 24/7 for two weeks. We shared meals together, multiple runs together, and sightseeing together. And to see folks go from literally Skid Row, and within a few weeks being in a paradise type situation, that was pretty moving,” he said.

Skid Row Running Club members on a morning run in India. (Photo courtesy John Su)

Skid Row Running Club members on a morning run in India. (Photo courtesy John Su)

KPSOM students who run with the club say they have benefited from similar bonding experiences.”It was immediately clear that they are simultaneously an extremely tight-knit group and a very welcoming bunch,” said student Samuel Case. “There’s a huge variety of backgrounds and experiences and it’s awesome to see them all come together in the name of helping the Skid Row community… The group serves as a great model for longitudinal solidarity and support as we continue to build our school community from the ground up. There are also some incredible runners that will motivate you to kick your training up a gear or two.”

As the Skid Row Running Club has grown, it has drawn considerable attention from media, and in 2017 it was profiled in the feature documentary “Skid Row Marathon,” which screened at the former Laemmle Playhouse 7 theater in Pasadena (just a few blocks from KPSOM) in 2019 and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. A number of faculty and students say they first became aware of the club through the film. The club was also recently featured in HBO’s “Real Sports.”

And as the ties between the school and the running club have deepened, KPSOM officials say it is important for the school to build mutually beneficial interactions with the people and organizations of Skid Row. Students Prince Wang and Cruz Riley previously created a community art project in the neighborhood, and a number of students have worked with the Downtown Women’s Center, a community health center for unhoused women, among other projects. 

“It is our responsibility to expose our students and faculty in a manner that sensitizes and motivates us to understand as well as take action,” said Carter-Edwards. “This is not possible unless we are in the space to be and work with community, engage in empathy, and continue to elevate how we incorporate these experiences and acts of service by bringing our lessons learned back to the larger school community.”

To that end, KPSOM student Kevin Zhou said the lessons he’s learned with the club will benefit him as a physician.

“Honestly, I'm usually not really even thinking about whether the person that I’m running next to, you know, what their living situation is,” said Zhou. “We just kind of chat about life and whatever is going on, complain about the run, stuff like that.” 

“As a medical student, before the running club, when I would talk to unhoused community members in clinic or on the street, I think there was always a general sense of discomfort for me, not really knowing what to say or how to act,” Zhou said. “What would be insulting? What wouldn't be? And for me, the real value has just been helping me to shift my posture a little bit towards emotionally recognizing, and increasing my comfort. Just interacting with the [runners] on the road, like anybody else.”