A gray-haired man dressed in a navy Trader Joe’s sweatshirt smiles widely, revealing several missing teeth as he opens his hand and accepts a roll of toilet paper. His eyes carry a look of appreciation. Someone else offers a gallon-sized plastic bag filled with bottled water, hygiene products and socks. The man graciously accepts.
So do a few hundred others living here in an area known as Skid Row, a squalid habitat for the unhoused in downtown Los Angeles, where weathered tents line roughly 50 city blocks. It’s home for an estimated 5,000 people — one of the largest and most condensed unhoused populations in the U.S. This world is absent of basic comforts. Makeshift beds, no real bathrooms, and roofs and walls made of nylon and polyester.
“You’re going to see every type of thing on Skid Row — people shooting up, people on drugs, people yelling at you,” says Kitwana “Kit” John, a certified personal trainer and founder of LA-based Movement Runners. “You don’t expect good things coming out of Skid Row.”
John has yet to feel deterred from showing up on the third Saturday of every month with a group of 20+ runners and friends who volunteer to distribute donations, always of which includes a pair of running shoes. The Skid Row Initiative, as John coined it, began in 2018 as a community outreach project under Movement Runners, a run club and 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Los Angeles.
A life serving others
John, born and raised in South Central LA, had been familiar with Skid Row growing up. His mother would bring him there on occasions before taking him to school. He’d quietly watch his mother offer extra meals from his family’s kitchen to the people there. And while John’s eight-year-old self didn’t quite understand the purpose, with time the message clicked. “As I got older, I started realizing how much impact one person can have if they give a little bit."
In 2014, when he was in his early 30s, John got into running after a friend convinced him to join a group run with Mission I’m Possible. “I really didn’t want to run. Who runs? I was that person,” John recalls of his initiation into the sport. His mindset quickly flipped and he decided to organize his own group run, inviting 40-or-so friends to join him. After the run was over, he was left questioning, “what’s next?”
What was supposed to be a one-time gathering to run transpired into a motivation to get others more comfortable with being active. That led to John to found Movement Runners eight years ago as a way to offer new runners an encouraging entry point into the sport, a place to feel welcome no matter their pace.
Bringing people together to better themselves was only part of his objective. The other intent for Movement Runners was to improve the community. John had longed to continue to serve others since his days in the military, Coast Guard and Army. Thereafter, he segued into nursing and worked in the medical field for a decade. Helping those in need was one of his life’s callings. Without hesitation, John opted to pivot his attention to one of the country’s most disregarded communities, the unhoused.
The Skid Row Initiative
As part of the Skid Row Initiative, John organizes a monthly sneaker drive, welcoming runners from all over the city to drop by his house and donate to a growing pile of shoes that can tally upwards of four digits. “I stopped counting after 1,000,” John says. He keeps the footwear in two-dozen bins in his backyard. Movement Runners rely on donations, from clothing and toiletries, which are used to create hygiene kits for the unhoused and require a team effort to inventory and assemble.
When John and his crew show up to Skid Row lugging dozens of IKEA totes full of offerings, they set up near the center and spend at least an hour connecting with the community and handing out the shoes and care packs.
Movement Runners member Toni Ross has volunteered for the Skid Row Initiative since 2016. She relates to the people she's helping. Ross was homeless after she became pregnant at age 20 in the early 90s. She lived out of her car. She says the Skid Row initiative is important exposure for revising the stigmas attached to homelessness.
“A lot of homeless people are just regular people that aren’t in a good financial situation. Not all are drug addicts or mentally ill,” says Ross. “Homeless people aren’t people to be afraid of. I used to be homeless. I would hate it if someone was afraid or felt uncomfortable around me just because I’m homeless. I have no problems asking the homeless their names, shaking their hands or even hugging them and having a conversation.”
The experience is humbling, not just for Ross, but for everyone who participates. For John, it deepens his appreciation of life. “Being mindful,” he says. “Have gratitude everyday.”