Los Angeles (AFP) - Dawn is breaking over downtown Los Angeles as a small group of men and women set off on a six-mile run from Skid Row, the epicenter of the city's homelessness crisis.
They are part of the Midnight Runners, an unusual running team made up mostly of recovering addicts and homeless people seeking a new lease on life.
As they jog past an apocalyptic scene of sidewalks lined with tents, cardboard boxes and makeshift tarps, many in the group know they could easily be among the thousands who call these streets "home."
"It's a wake-up call every time I walk out here of where my life could go if I keep making bad choices," says Kenneth Collins, 35, one of the latest members of the team, who is a recovering drug addict and has been homeless on and off for the past 16 years.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there are some 47,000 homeless people in and around Los Angeles. An estimated 6,000 live in Skid Row, a sprawling 50-block area that has the highest concentration of homeless people in the country.
Like several of his running mates, Collins lives at the Midnight Mission, a shelter and addiction center right in the middle of Skid Row.
The running club offers its members a therapeutic outlet as they battle to overcome years of addiction to drugs or alcohol as well as homelessness.
The brains behind the project is a Los Angeles judge, Craig Mitchell, an avid jogger who spends his days on the bench overseeing murder, rape and other felony cases.
Mitchell says he came up with the idea after a man he had sentenced to prison reached out to him while on parole and invited him to visit the Midnight Mission.
"He found his way back to my courtroom and asked me to come down to the Mission to meet the people involved in his recovery," said the 60-year-old judge, sitting in his court chambers wearing a dress shirt, shorts and running shoes.
- Running with a judge -
"It was completely happenstance. I was put on the spot on how I could help and I said, 'How about a running club.'"
Five years later, the club has become a mainstay attracting more and more runners who have participated in marathons across the globe, from Ghana, to Italy and, most recently this past summer, Vietnam.
"I would have never dreamt... that I would one day be running a marathon in Vietnam and with, of all people, a judge," said David Noriega, who joined the team last year as he fought drug addiction that led to a life of crime, homelessness and a total 13 years behind bars.
"I mean, I'm an ex-con, and I'm running with a judge who handles criminal cases," added the 50-year-old father of four, his eyes often welling with tears as he told his story.
"And when I came back from Vietnam in the summer, my kids were no longer ashamed to call me their father."
After running in the Los Angeles marathon this coming March, next on the bucket list of the Midnight Runners will be a marathon in Jerusalem in 2018.
- 'Someone who cares enough' -
The overseas trips -- which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars -- are funded by donations and by the judge himself who doesn't hesitate to foot the bill when it comes to buying running shoes for the 20 to 25 people on the team.
Mitchell said while he is considered a mentor by many of the runners -- who also include a prosecutor, a criminal attorney and a movie executive -- he has found they bring much meaning to his life.
"These are people I expect to be my friends for the rest of my life," he said.
"The nicest thing is when someone will give me a hug and they'll say what I hear far too infrequently from my own children -- 'You know Judge Mitchell, I really love you.'
"It doesn't get much better than that."
Mitchell said he is well aware that some of the runners might end up again on the street or before him in the courtroom but that is no reason to give up on them.
"Anyone who works with people in recovery understands that a majority of them do not succeed out of the gate," he said. "But after multiple failures, often times there is a point at which they will figure it out."
Michael Mitts, who was used to sleeping under bridges, by riverbeds or on the street until arriving at the Midnight Mission last June, said he joined the running club to get back in shape only to discover a group of people that actually cared.
"I had a very rough childhood... and I was about 18 when I became homeless," said the 47-year-old.
"And here, not only does running help me get rid of stress, but you have someone who cares enough to donate his time and take us out running," he added, referring to the judge. "And that's pretty awesome."