Filmmakers Discuss New Documentary About Homeless Kids

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Slated for release in 2014, The Homestretch is a documentary film about homeless youth in inner-city Chicago. The film is co-produced by New York City-based film and documentary company Spargel Productions andPhoto from The Homestretch film Chicago-based documentary company Kartemquin Films. It was recently awarded a Sundance Institute Development Grant and the MacArthur Foundation Documentary Film Grant. Co-directors and co-producers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly recently shared their experiences and insights with Youth Today’s partners, the Chicago Bureau.

Can you tell me about the concept of the film?

Kirsten: It's a film about the intimate lives of homeless adolescents as they try to build a future with no home and very limited adult support. We're focusing a lot of our time in working with Chicago Public Schools and their extensive homeless program, as well as several area shelters and organizations that try to support homeless youth to stay in school and build a future.

Anne: We've discovered that one of the things the film will show is that for many of these young people, school really becomes home. It becomes the place where they know they can get meals, where they know is warm, where they know they have some form of structure and through the teachers in the homeless program, some form of support.

What inspired both of you to work on this documentary?

Kirsten: We were looking for our next documentary film and I work with a program called CPS Shakespeare with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. I'd been working with a group of high school kids and toward the end of the project, I discovered that a couple of the kids I was working with were basically homeless. They didn't fit the stereotype and I was talking to Anne about it and she really thought it was a great idea to try to tell their story and we wanted to break the stereotype of what being young and homeless means. We saw a lot of media representation was telling the story of the troubled runaway or the drug addict sleeping under the bridge, and honestly a lot of those stories were about Caucasian kids coming from a very different kind of situation. We felt that the numbers were rising so dramatically and this was a story that wasn't getting out.

Anne: Well I think that for me, the young people themselves were the biggest inspiration. Because of the economic crisis, more than ever, it's very difficult to begin to build a life for yourself in this world, to find a good job, to get your first apartment, to kind of launch into the world. And these young people that we've been working with have been really fighting against all the odds. And how do you navigate what it takes nowadays to kind of break into your own life when you don't have the kind of support that's available to a lot of young people? So to me, it was about the young people but it was also about where we're at as a country, and what we're putting our focus on as a country. That's another thing that really interests me and so I feel like there's a larger story. It's like looking at the world through the lens of the future, and the future that we have is the young people that exists. So to look at things now through that lens is really a powerful thing.

Where are you in the process of film and production right now?

Anne: We're going to film through this coming school year, so that we can follow a kid that graduated this year and we're also following a couple of young people who have graduated from high school. One of the things that we're discovering is that it's very difficult to get these kids to graduation and a lot of people think if they graduate, they're fine. But what we've been really learning through our experience with these young people was that really it's the year after high school where the shit hits the fan, because school goes away. All that structure and that support goes away. So that's where a big part of the story happens--right after high school as they're trying to launch into creating their own lives--their independent lives. So I think we're probably going to film another year and then another year of editing.

What have you learned about the issue of youth homelessness through your experiences so far?

Kirstin: I've learned how resilient these young kids are, how creative and inspiring they are in terms of what they do in order to survive and to try to have a "normal" school life. I think there's this tremendous fight to not let people know about their situations or their challenges and to try to rise above the traumatic and harrowing things that happen to them in order to fight to really build something for themselves. I think in an age where a lot of youth are younger and younger in many ways in terms of maturity, these youth we've been working with are having to flee on their own at 12, 13, 14. The resiliency of the human spirit is incredible. What the film I hope will do is be able to eliminate so many of the seemingly small details that they have to go through and have to fight for to stay going forward in their lives. I think it hopefully will be very eye-opening for people.

Anne: I just want to add that one of the interesting things for me as we gone through so much learning is how hidden the problem is. When you think about homeless people, you really think about being out on the streets and certainly a lot of the kids experience being out on the street. But in addition to that, there's this whole landscape of crashing on people's couches for weeks at a time when you try to figure out what you're doing. On the outside, it may not seem like a young person is homeless, because they have certain experiences. But without having a stable place to live, the kind of stress that that adds onto a young person's life and their consistent questioning of where they're going to stay is difficult. How are you going to get your next meal? Where are those things going to come from? So in a way, understanding that the homeless landscape, especially for young people, is really a whole landscape. It's not just one scenario. So kind of understand that there's this landscape of being homeless in Chicago was really something I had no idea about. I think most people don't have any concept of what it really means.

Kirsten: In a way, it's its own community. One thing I've learned too that I will continue to learn is we start to go out into the world with the film is just how deep the stereotypes are about what homelessness is and in a way, I've learned how much deep-hated blame there is. You see the blame and judgment without people taking the time to understand the situation or the story behind why. I think that's what we really hope the film can do--to open the dialogue and start to further address homelessness. I think what's powerful about media or documentary film is not just that the film can bring awareness but that the film can inspire events and dialogue and action. In a way, the film becomes a portal for change.

What do you hope to accomplish or change by creating this film?

Anne: The overriding thing is to help create a sense of understanding and a sense of empathy with young people who are going through these challenges. And then this piece will be able to be used as an advocacy piece to get more support for homeless education, more support for services for homeless young people. It's an enormous problem in this country right now. The numbers have been rising so strongly and if you think about 1.6 million young people without a steady place to live--and that's that we know about--it's an extraordinary number. And that it's happening at a point where the economic crunch is forcing services to be cut all across the board. There is a national mandate that supports homeless education, but it is completely unfunded. There's no money to implement it. So money would have to be found in the existing school budget. So it's a problem that needs attention and solutions, so we hope that this can be an advocacy piece for that.

Kirsten: Personally, I think we hope that this film shows how getting involved personally in small or big ways make such a difference, because we also focus on several adults who very deeply get involved and help support these youth in really surprising ways and I hope that this opens the door for people in that the film and the advocacy campaign can provide the path for people to take and to get involved in whatever ways they feel they can and in whatever time.

How do you think being homeless in Chicago is different than being homeless somewhere else?

Kirsten: I think the urban story of youth homelessness is a different story than some of the more rural or mid-size towns. I think Chicago is different because geographically and how it's laid out, the poverty has been relegated specifically to certain areas and those areas are more spaced out than they are and therefore more isolated than they are in New York or DC. The poor are more isolated and I think that affects how being homeless is in the city. That takes more efforts to get to services. We have kids who live in their community and they haven't been even six blocks outside their communities.

Anne: I know that it's more than 3/4 of the budget that CPS has for their homeless education costs goes to transportation. That's one of the things that's really powerful--just getting where you need to go. In Chicago, it's a huge deal.

Why is your film called The Homestretch?

Kirsten: I think it's called The Homestretch, because when we started understanding that these final years of high school and then transitioning into whatever the next step was, whether it was work or school or whatever those next steps were--finding your own apartment--that final year of school was so seen as this, 'We got to get to graduation.' This homestretch of everything is going to be okay if I can just get to graduation. And the realization when that structure went away, the big question then really became what's next? This idea of the homestretch to get to graduation and the homestretch to get through your teen years into your adult life for everything will lift off is the idea behind the title.

Anne: And we like the play on words. But we're also stretching as a culture as this thing has become more economically crunched. We're stretching what home is, what it means and what constitutes a home. You have people where they're not only doubled up with family members, but they're tripled up with family members because there are just not enough resources for everyone to be independent anymore. Home is literally getting stretched in this way to handle more and more.

Did you decide to create this film after you received the grant?

Anne: We'd actually been filming for about 9 or 10 months when we got the Sundance grant. Since the beginning, this has definitely been a labor of love and we've been grateful for the Sundance support and the MacArthur support, which allows us to continue with our project.

Kirsten: We had just received the MacArthur film grant for the project, which is a really exciting development. It means we could really proceed for the film. We've also really committed to taking our time to tell this story. We didn't want to do a quick flash piece, because as we got to know some of these youth, the story really became not just where do you get food and where do you sleep? We really wanted to tell the story of, 'How do you build a life and a future when you're facing these challenges?' and that just takes time. So we've been working almost two years already and we have another year to go just to give time and place to our story so that it didn't feel like people just coming in and assessing the situation, so that we could really start to understand the journeys within these challenges.

 

Audrey Cheng is a reporter the Chicago Bureau