"We can’t watch you die."
Those were the last words Ben Shirley said his friends told him when they left him on the stairs outside the Midnight Mission in 2012. He stumbled through the door of the Los Angeles nonprofit just as one of the workers was finishing his shift.
"For some reason, he saw this animal in front of him and he took me upstairs," Shirley said. "And there it was. That was the start of everything."
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Before he was homeless, Shirley was a literal rock star, signed with a record label and with all the money, cars, girls and everything else he said came with it.
"Alcohol, heroin, pills, whatever," he said. "No one cares if you drink or use, as long as you can perform."
Then he ended up on Skid Row. It was rock bottom, until a man Shirley despised walked into the mission: Craig Mitchell, an LA Superior Court judge.
"He’s a judge and my old lifestyle says, ‘You’re the police and you’re the cops and I hate you,'" Shirley said.
But Mitchell had an idea. He invited Shirley to join the Skid Row Running Club, which supports drug addicts looking to escape to a much different high.
"Running was a natural good fit for where they were in their life," Mitchell said.
The group, which Mitchell founded in 2012, provides mentorships and connections to those in the Skid Row community.
"You’ve got to get past the tents. You’ve got to get past the squalor," he said.
"People who are on Skid Row, who are in recovery, are oftentimes pretty lonely. They burned a lot of bridges with their family, employers — relationships have sort of fallen apart. And to create a sense of community is really important to give someone the mental fortitude to succeed."
Shirley, and 24 others in the club, will run the LA Marathon, again, this weekend. Running, they say, is the great equalizer among them.
"You can be a superior court judge, you can be a millionaire or you can be a poor guy,” Shirley said. “At mile 20, that levels the playing field."
Shirley is now sober, working as a composer for TV and film — all stemming from an invitation to run with a judge.
"It’s been one of the most meaningful chapters of my life," Mitchell said.