Documentary-Homelessness in America
Homelessness in America is an epidemic with no solution in sight. In fact, the issue is only growing—as seen recently in my home city of Minneapolis with the rise of its largest-ever tent city.
-Minneapolis Tent City, also known as "The Wall"
What's going on?
While experts offer some theories, rarely is there a comprehensive overview of this issue. So, I'm creating a documentary film offering just that.
With the story of the Minneapolis Tent City as its focus, this film will share the history, data, and stories around the issue of homelessness in America. This includes: the stories as told by the homeless themselves, the experiences and insights from those working with them, and various perspectives from the community.
-Some of the subjects I've interviewed
This project seeks to make sense of this issue, to uncover the causes and solutions while steering clear of the political sways so often affecting journalism today.
Would you contribute to help make this happen?
Much of the filming and research is complete. Here's what's next:
1. Hire help to edit the footage and design the graphical elements of the film
2. Conduct surveys at the Tent City to learn more about the causes of these residents' situations
3. Travel to Houston (Here's why: The Houston metropolitan area is the fifth-largest in the country. It's almost twice the size of Seattle (#15) as well as the Twin Cities (#16). And yet, the Twin Cities has more homeless people than Houston, while Seattle has almost TRIPLE what Houston has. What is Houston doing different? To what degree does policy affect homelessness? My visit to Houston will help me find out.)
4. My time to work on, and oversee, all the aspects of this film.
-Me at my home office
Besides the trip to Houston and some follow-up interviews, I'm looking to have filming finished within a week or two. Then, for the remainder of November, December, and January, I'll be working with my editing team. And by the end of January (or February), I hope to premiere this film in Minneapolis—an event contributors will be given a ticket to. (For contributors unable to attend, I will release the documentary to you on my YouTube channel shortly thereafter.)
Speaking of social media, see many more of my updates and photos from this project by going to my Facebook , Instagram , or Twitter.
By sharing the stories and lives of those caught up in this rising problem, and by offering clear analysis of this issue, my hope is this project illuminates the best way forward for addressing homelessness in America.
Thank you for your time, consideration, and contribution.
It was a good week.
Scratch that. It was a great week, accumulating interviews with homeless folks and homeless experts, surveying those on the streets, and gaining new insights into homelessness in ways (and of a volume) exceeding expectations.
So first, a special thank you goes out to the 20 of you who’ve chipped in to help make this journey possible. And as I write this from a pit stop on my return drive to Minneapolis, I look ahead to all that now needs to be done: analyzing the many surveys from Houston, Dallas, and Minneapolis; creating outlines for the stories to be featured in this documentary series (with the help of my writer friend David); and then editing all this footage into videos (with the help of my cousin & editor Krista and friend & video-producer Joe).
Each of these individuals are helping me for little to no compensation. But I would like to pay them whatever I can, as well afford myself more time to work on this project. So, if you so desire to lend a further hand, share this campaign with someone you know.
Now I’ll stop talking about what’s to come and instead share what I did this past week…
My first morning there, I drove to the location of a reported tent city—only to discover it had been disbanded by police. But there were yet a few hangers-on. So, I spoke to these guys and asked them to complete a survey. (lower right pic 1)
These guys then directed me to where I found a larger group of homeless folks. This group was also willing to fill out surveys. One guy was even open to being interviewed about the difficulties facing this community. (upper left pic 1)
“A lot of them can’t read or write,” said this Houston man about his peers on the street.
A second man there took an interest in my work and asked to be interviewed as well. More than that, this man named Jim would tour me around to a couple of other places in the city to help me better understand the homeless situation there. But first, he shared with me his story. (lower left pic 1)
“It gets to the point where I don’t want to get my hopes up. That just crushes you even more,” said Jim.
After losing his job and then his wife three years back, he ate away at his savings until penniless. Today he finds himself in a position where the pain of disappointment is too much to risk, he says. Best not to try at all.
After sharing his story, Jim took me to a small tent city in town. (pic 2)
“I guarantee people from the city have come through here with a clipboard,” said Jim, my Houston guide for the day.
According to Jim, a sight like the one over his shoulder above isn’t so much about neglect from the city as it is about resistance from those who remain homeless.
“Hey, I’m out here on the street. I can take it,” said Jim, speaking for those who refuse help, which Houston has been ambitiously offering in recent years.
Also, he said, “If you’re getting help from the law, you might [seen as] a snitch.”
Even when offered housing, there seems to remain homelessness. The question with what to do about such people remains to be answered. This is a question Marilyn Brown, President of Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless is trying to solve. The following day I interviewed her at the Coalition’s downtown office. (pic 3)
“We have housed more than 15,000 people in the seven-year span since we began this work,” said Marilyn. “At the two-year mark, a good 85-90% of the people are in still in the housing–or have been able to move on and become self-sustaining.”
Since 2011, Houston has reduced homelessness by 50% through an ambitious, coordinated effort to provide permanent housing. Marilyn explained the benefits of their “housing first” model.
It promotes the idea that a homeless person isn’t practically able to build a life until he/she has the foundation of a secure home. So, Houston has been providing them to the chronic homeless—regardless of their criminal past, whether they are sober, etc. This idea is criticized by those who point out such a system rewards behaviors that lead to homelessness (addiction, irresponsibility, etc.) and can be exploited because of this. Bringing this up to Marilyn, she simply disagrees that such concerns (though present) outweigh the benefits.
“Housing first” is considered across America to be a Progressive approach to the homeless crisis. Yet the Coalition in Houston also has taken a more conservative stance in advocating for law enforcement to disband large tent cities. They were, in fact, a reason why the tent city I sought out my first morning was no longer there. The Coalition’s stance comes from the fact that residents in tent cities are at risk of the activity within them. Plus, residents are less likely to pursue the Coalition’s housing and service programs.
In all, I gathered that Houston has taken a pragmatic, carrot-and-stick approach: generous programs to help the homeless while steering such individuals into their system. This combination struck me in its sensibility—as well as how it contrasts the approach with which Minneapolis has addressed its tent city.
I’ll be fleshing out such points in my documentary series.
Finally in Houston, I visited one of the new housing complexes built for the homeless. There I met Reginald, who opened up about the activity inside this building of dormitory-style apartment units. (upper right pic 1) “If that person wants nothing out of life, he’s gonna come here and do nothing. If a person wants to succeed, he’s gonna, you know, grow and get better.”
Reginald, who had been homeless about three years, now lives rent-free in the building behind him. He said the quote above when asked how his fellow residents are using this new chance to build a life. Is it used as a stepping stone or a place for people to party and whatnot?
As he indicated, and as I’ve seen in Minneapolis, the results are mixed. Many here, according to Reginald and others I asked in Houston, do use their new home to build a life. At the same time, he said, “A few people have brought the street mentality indoors.” Some of whom “have been kicked out for fighting and drinking and things like that.”
This, I believe, is the crux of the issue of whether such initiatives are the best way forward. Thus, it’s one I’ll examine in detail in this documentary series on homelessness in America.
Next time, I’ll share the equally-productive two full days I spent in Dallas…
Until then, I’ll be returning home, returning to the Minneapolis tent city, and getting to work on all this material.
Thank you for allowing this project to happen.
In southern Iowa I spoke to a gas station manager with a surprising amount of insight into how the lost youth of America are adding to the homeless crisis.
Just outside of Kansas City I met a truck driver who shared about the growing difficulty making a good living in his line of work.
And in small town Arkansas a local man opened up like a book about those he has personally tried to help out of homelessness over the years.
This single-issue journey to Texas has had the side-benefit of sewing a tapestry of America. Their threads will be included in my documentary on homelessness.
Now in Houston, it's time to dig a little deeper. Fine by me. (What a difference in weather a few states make!) This week I'll explore Houston's (and Dallas's) homeless communities and services. I'll ask individuals their stories, have them fill out surveys, and find out from the service providers why their approaches seem to have been more effective than those of other large American cities.
To do all this, my hope is that those I encounter this week are as willing to share as those I met on my way down here.
Wish me luck.
And I thank you for encouraging me all this way. Monetarily, you've now contributed over $700 thanks to a couple more donations this past week for this project. This money has paid for 100 surveys at the tent city in Minneapolis, and this week it will pay for more surveys, transportation costs, and some left over for professional support for this project.
Thank for making it all possible.
"I don't think they're lazy at all... Cause I know a lot of them are working, are trying to get jobs. They just can't find anything."
"You know, the hard part that I find... is that there are homeless people, and then there are others who prey upon a community. We've seen a lot more panhandlers. They kinda get into people's faces. They threaten people. And that's what I struggle with. We didn't have as much of this situation even 4-5 years ago. At what point do we say, 'Enough is enough'?"
"I can be homeless today down in the cities and get a job--same day. Gotta look hard enough and want it hard enough."
Most people have thoughts on an issue as provocative as homelessness. However, there is a natural tendency to want to share some opinions more than others. This tendency isn't necessarily bad. Some opinions are harmful. The real problem is when some helpful thoughts are unheard, because those who have them are afraid of being misunderstood.
This is the double-edged sword of our connected world: the capability for many to have a voice; the capability for a severe, undeserved backlash. Unfortunately, this double-edged sword sometimes causes the most-urgent issues (such as homelessness) to be the ones deprived of helpful insights and ideas.
So it is with thanks to those who stuck their necks out (pictured), I present the opinions above gathered in northern Minnesota this past weekend. I plan to share several more such thoughts in video form for my upcoming documentary series on homelessness. I plan to capture them from those in different parts of the country.
And it is with thanks I write this update--because your donations are making this work possible.
The destruction of this land symbolizes the plight of those staying here. The culprit? Well, that's the debate. The net of blame is wide to include the city, drugs, housing costs, the choices of these residents, and on and on. I'm teasing out these "suspects" in this documentary on homelessness.
I'm also telling the stories of those afflicted. And one such young man offered a ray of light on this cloudy day. He yelled over to me as I photographed the burned items. He asked me to photograph his art--an assemblage of fire-damaged items. Having listened to the struggles many here have with physical and substance abuse, the hope is that they, like this young man, can find the beauty and hope in the wake of difficulty.
Thank you all for helping me follow this story, report what's worthy, share what's needed, and discover the uncovered. Homelessness (and those factors which cause it) need to be addressed.