What Individuals Experiencing Homelessness Taught Me About Success

UPDATED: February 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 22, 2023
Skid Row Marathon runner Ben Shirley

About 10 years ago, I began filming Skid Row Marathon, a documentary about a running club founded by a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district. Once most of the filming was finished, I was faced with the frightening task of editing 300 hours of material into a meaningful and hopefully watchable finished product.

It dawned on me one morning while I was sharpening pencils instead of editing that I had actually learned a lot about success and achieving goals from those I thought were the least likely to provide me with any new insights—the unhoused.

After Judge Craig Mitchell sentenced a man to prison a few years back, the man was out on parole and decided to pay the judge a visit in his chambers. This man told Mitchell he was living at The Midnight Mission, a homeless shelter on Skid Row, and invited the judge to stop by.

So Mitchell, who loves to run, jogged over to the Mission to see where the parolee was living. He was impressed by how they were helping people get off the streets and how they were changing their lives for the better. Inspired, he met with the shelter’s now-former president, Larry Adamson, and they decided to start a running club.

Meet ‘Skid Row Marathon’ runner Ben Shirley

One of the first members to join the Midnight Runners was Ben Shirley.

Shirley was a heavy metal guitarist and had a regular gig playing at L.A.’s legendary Viper Room. One night, Shirley walked out onstage totally plastered and collapsed. After the band walked off the stage in disgrace, someone carried Shirley out to a car and loaded him into the back seat like a sack of potatoes. They drove him down to Skid Row and dumped him at the curb.

Shirley found his way to The Midnight Mission and was beginning his recovery when he heard about the running club. He was 300 pounds and a heavy smoker, but he decided to join. “I couldn’t barely waddle down the street [at the beginning],” Shirley recalls, “but I waddled a little further every day. The running club taught me how to show up and keep showing up. Results will happen. It’s transformed my life.”

Goals for the future

As he tried to get a job and move off Skid Row, Shirley enrolled in a music program at Los Angeles City College. He eventually moved out of the Mission and started renting a small room where he could sleep and compose. He wrote an original classical composition as an audition piece to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I flew to San Francisco with Shirley for his interview and live audition, where he’d play some minuet in D-minor. I was not allowed to film it. He told me that he hit a few clinkers but kept playing.

In the few hours I had to kill before my flight back to L.A., I remembered during the interview that Shirley had mentioned he grew up across the bay in Sausalito, California, but that one day his father decided to move the family to El Paso, Texas. Shirley had been bitter ever since, even attributing his drug and alcohol problems to the disappointment caused by his father’s decision. I suggested that we take the ferry over to Sausalito and visit his childhood school. Shirley agreed—reluctantly.

We arrived at the perimeter of the school, situated on a grassy hillside with huge trees and a view of the bay. Shirley didn’t want to go any further.

“We’re here Ben. Might as well walk around,” I ventured.

“Please, don’t ask me to do that. I can’t do that,” he replied.

While I didn’t want to push, I knew that just seeing the school must have dredged up all kinds of memories. I could see the baseball field where Shirley used to play first base.

“Look, the baseball field,” I said. “Come on, Ben. It won’t kill you.”

“No way, man. I can’t. It’s too painful,” he said.

And facing old demons

I looked at Shirley and knew that it probably was too painful. I was always mindful of the fact that Shirley was in recovery and the last thing I wanted to do was to push him over the edge and have him reach for a bottle, or worse.

So I picked up my camera and started walking toward the field. “I’ll get some shots,” I said. After I had gone about 10 yards, I noticed that Shirley, with his long beard and face tattoos, was following me. Someone will call 911, I thought. We reached the baseball diamond, and Shirley took it all in as the camera rolled. He started telling me how he could never understand why his father moved the family away from this paradise. He had a point.

“This, right here, is cleansing for me. I’m glad I did come onto the field,” he said. “This is a closing to a chapter in my life. I had a lot of resentments moving from Sausalito to El Paso. I held that against my old man until I got sober, for 30-something years!”

Shirley paused and looked out through the trees toward the bay. “He did the best he could,” he said.

We boarded the ferry for the trip back. Shirley didn’t say much. He watched as Sausalito and his childhood memories seemed to shrink, as the boat picked up speed. I had a close-up of him in my viewfinder as we cruised past Alcatraz. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was hoping he was ready to set himself free.

Meet ‘Skid Row Marathon’ runner Rebecca Hayes

Rebecca Hayes was another one of the Midnight Runners we followed.

She and her 3-year-old son used to live between a couple of dumpsters in a downtown Seattle alley she called home. After more than 30 arrests for various offenses, she moved to L.A. where she eventually got help with her addiction issues. The Midnight Mission family program provided housing and support for her and her son as she waited tables and went back to school.

She joined the running club because she had a crush on one of the members. The love story didn’t work out, but she realized that she really liked running. It gave her the discipline and structure she needed as she set some major goals for herself—someday she wanted to move back to Seattle so her son could be near his father. She also wanted to get a job at a hospital caring for patients.

Finishing a marathon in Rome

After one of our early morning biweekly runs through Skid Row, Mitchell announced that he would be taking about a dozen members of the running club to Italy to run the Rome Marathon. Everyone was excited—for some, it would be their first trip out of California—and the runs got longer and more frequent.

The day of the marathon was a windy, rainy mess. Volunteers handed out yellow ponchos made of plastic too thin to wrap a bologna sandwich. By the time we walked the half-mile to the starting line at the Coliseum, we were all soaked. The press pass I needed to display on my e-bike to ride on the course was turning into papier-mâché.

I was zooming along through the puddles and over the slippery cobblestones when, at about mile 10, I heard someone call out. It was Hayes. She was pale and her brown hair was clinging to her cheeks.

“I’m not feeling well. I don’t know if I can finish,” she told me.

“Uber it to mile 20,” I offered. “I won’t tell the others.” She didn’t laugh. She was ready to collapse.

“I need a pizza and some cigarettes,” she said. “Can you lend me 20 euros?”

She scarfed down a lovely thin crust affair, a bottle of Pellegrino and followed up with a smoke. Revived, she was back in the race. (Believe it or not, this was not the first time I had seen runners smoke during marathons. Please do not attempt this if you are a runner!)

The rain eventually gave way to sunshine, and I filmed Hayes as she crossed the finish line. This was her third marathon—and her toughest.

“I ran this marathon and it was not easy. Every step, I was in a lot of pain, and I was thinking, I just need to finish. I just need to finish,” she said.

Success stories of the Skid Row Marathon runners

We got back to the hotel and I started capturing all the footage from the day.

Then Shirley called. “Come to my room. Bring the camera.”

When I got to his room, he was holding up his iPhone. I zoomed in on the screen. The subject line read “Congratulations!” It was from the San Francisco Conservatory. Shirley would be in the fall class—on a full scholarship, no less.

When we returned to L.A., Hayes started looking in earnest for a job in Seattle. She had a couple of good phone interviews, but they still needed her fingerprints to do a background check. She was worried.

“It seems really frustrating right now—dealing with my past and climbing this mountain and fighting all these giants,” she said. “But I know that if I keep just putting one foot in front of each other, that I will finish the race.”

A couple of weeks later, she flew to Seattle for a follow-up interview at a hospital and was able to make her case in person. Her arrest record came up. She took responsibility for her past and explained that she was a different person now and was ready to prove herself.

Back in L.A., she waited for the call. It finally came. She got the job and would be starting at the maternity ward in two weeks. She was ecstatic.

When my wife and I started Skid Row Marathon, the first thing we shot was an interview with Mitchell. I remember him saying, “Any perception that people who suffer from addiction, and who end up on Skid Row or at The Midnight Mission, are intellectually deficient or do not possess the character traits to achieve great things in their life is an absolute misperception.” I didn’t really believe this before starting work on the documentary. But I do now.

What I learned about success while filming Skid Row Marathon 

So, should you start running marathons and expect all of your dreams to come true?

After running with the club for two years, the only thing I had to show for it was a torn ligament in my left hip. It will require surgery. I also gained 10 pounds. Terrific. But I did learn about success. It didn’t come from a book or a podcast, but from people being successful right in front of me.

I learned…

… to start where you are now. Circumstances may not be perfect, but where you are now is as good a place as any to start.

… to show up and keep showing up. Results will happen. It will transform your life.

… to not listen to the naysayers.

… that if you hit a clinker, you keep playing.

… to finish. It may be painful—but finish. Stop for a pizza along the way if you like.

… to forgive. It can help resolve issues that may be inhibiting your success.

And from The Midnight Mission and the humble Mitchell, I learned something perhaps even more important than success:

Give people a second chance, for crying out loud. People aren’t perfect, and yes, some people wind up where they are because of their own stupid actions. But people have the capacity to change, and many do. And when they are given a second chance, they don’t disappoint.

It’s time for me to get back to the editing booth. Forgive me, but it’s a marathon!

Follow the Midnight Runners running club on Twitter @skidrowmarathon or visit their Facebook page.

This article was published in August 2015 and has been updated. Photo by Mark Hayes

Mark Hayes is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His project Skid Row Marathon follows a running club on L.A.’s Skid Row that was founded by Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell.