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.
This work, of course, is made possible by your donation and your encouraging words. You all being a part of this motivates me every day. And for this, I thank you all immensely!
I first met Todd as he raked the lawn around his tent. Myself knowing little about the lifestyle of those living on the street, this action surprised me a little. So did Todd's demeanor and words.
On that September day he told me he didn't prefer to be there at The Wall tent city in Minneapolis--that he was working to get out. But he also seemed at peace with his situation and said he enjoyed cleaning around his temporary home. He had perhaps the best attitude of all those I encountered in my many visits to the camp.
Yet beyond the surface, it seems there was struggle.
Earlier this week Todd died of an overdose at the new homeless shelter built near the former tent city. I visited the shelter grounds yesterday to see the fire burning in his honor.
Todd is the second of those I interviewed this past fall to have since died. The first was Pamela, who died less than two weeks after she shared her life with me.
This begins to shed light on the pervasiveness of the drug epidemic and the turmoil threading through the lives of many in the Minnesota Native American community. I'll touch on this in the documentary series I'm currently working on about The Wall tent city in Minneapolis and homelessness in America.
Thank you so much for supporting this work, so that I can share the stories of these lives and the need to help them.
I admit: I used to entertain career fantasies from a perspective a bit more disconnected from reality. In such imagined scenarios, I'd have a team of experts assisting all aspects of my media and travel projects:
-An expert helping me choose the topic to cover
-An expert arranging my travel
-An expert creating a marking campaign for the project
-An expert finding sponsors for the endeavor
-A team of experts (sound, cinematography, writers) taking all my footage and creating the final product
One by one, they'd approach me with proposals I'd shrewdly examine, decide on, and then he or she would be off to do the legwork.
I think this fantasy was inspired by movies or TV shows featuring bigwigs (boss, president, CEO) with a team of advisors at their service.
"Yeah," I'd think during this daydream. "That would be great."
Well, what the movie wouldn't show is that in order to be a bigwig, one usually has to do an inordinate amount of legwork themselves. In addition, I was imagining some stereotyped version of these "experts."
Waiting for this ideal expert to just magically turn up, the results were unsurprising: I did a lot of work alone.
Such disconnection kept me from following advice I first read as a freshman in college. On someone's dorm room door read a sign:
Do What You Can
With What You Have
Where You Are
I can still remember reading this and then later sharing this quote with a friend.
I can also remember being nudged toward this advice by way of watching a lot of movies in college. I noticed directors liked to use the same actors throughout their films. This was an insight into the on-the-ground efforts of making a big Hollywood film. Rather than just assuming these films just "came together," I considered how writers, directors, and actors cooperating on one project would naturally lead to another, and then another, and another. They were doing what they could, with who they had, where they were. They were building, creating, doing in their situation.
With a little more wisdom than I had back when I was 18 (or 30), I've been able to heed this advice on my latest project covering homelessness in America. I've opened my eyes, made a connection, and have been working with my editor cousin Krista, who you've already met. Well, get ready to meet her again, cause she and I put our heads together again last week to continue our work on episode 1 of this documentary series. (picture 1)
We tackled the second half of the episode, a segment titled "How Did We Get Here?" offering a brief history of homelessness in the U.S. from the late 1800s to today.
Beyond family, I'm working with friend Joe who's been my cameraman for a few interviews, as well as friend David, a videographer offering guidance on this project.
All the work--the research, the travel, the interviews, the surveys, the time editing--is being made possible by the donations we've received from you. So, to you we offer a great, big thank you. This past week we passed the $1,000 mark. (picture 2) Each donation helps us share the story of (and stories within) the Minneapolis tent city, as well as examine the causes and solutions to the homeless crisis across America.
One last point about working with who you have and where you are: I've found this doesn't just provide adequate help. It has provided those perfect for the project. This goes for Krista, Joe, and Dave. It also goes for my dear Grandpa Ferdig, who I interviewed for the second time on Friday. (picture 3) The first time, he shared his grizzly bear story from Alaska. This time, he shared a boyhood story of his family in northern Minnesota driving to the Red Lake Indian Reservation to join the Native Americans for a July 4th celebration.
For those like me from this part of the country, such an event seems strange, because 1. it's not something most area whites would consider today. And 2. It implies a history where relations between Natives American and whites in Minnesota were better than today. How is this possible? And might this be contributor to why so many Native Americans resided at the tent city here in Minneapolis?
Thanks to Grandpa, I'll have a chance to dig further into this idea, an idea right in front of me the whole time--where I was, with whom I had before me.
I hope you had a festive, uplifting New Year's celebration, and best of luck doing whatever you can, with whatever/whoever you have, wherever you are in 2019.
Canceled plans in Louisiana, plus a Dallas resident reaching out to help my project, meant the second half of my week away was spent in this dazzling city.
Entering at night from Houston, the lit Dallas skyline was indeed dazzling. But my destinations within were quite the opposite. The next two days had me visit two shelters, photograph a newly-built community of former homeless, and interview several homeless residents and experts along the way.
Walking to a downtown homeless shelter my first morning here, I bump into a young man—who became my first interview (picture 1, center).
"I go by Stix. I don't actually tell people what my real name is," he opened as we sat down in a nearby food court. "Cause when you're on the streets 24/7, if you get into a beef with someone and they find out who you are, you're, you know, endangering your family."
Stix is his street name, he clarified. His stage name is Zdon the Rapper.
Zdon the Rapper performs at the local clubs and says he puts every dollar he earns back into his career. Why spend hundreds a month on rent when that'll buy a lot of promotion?
"If I can save up $300 for a venue," he explained. "I'll already have the list of names to hit up."
Given the trade-offs, Zdon the Rapper actually seemed pretty content with his lifestyle—if not downright mellow. But then he also shared his struggle with mental health, which put a wedge between him and his family and for which he lacks care today.
Zdon represents a growing number of youth homeless in the U.S.
Danny (picture 1, left) found out three weeks ago his mother was receiving hospice care. So, he—a small town deli worker—hitchhiked to Dallas.
"It took me three or four days, got like four rides," he said.
He wanted to stay with his mother, but that wasn't allowed. So, the facility paid for a cab to the homeless shelter outside which we are standing during this interview.
Then Danny planned to stay with a friend, but things fell through. He said he "had a little bit of money, but it didn't go far." He also said he knew he might end up without a place to stay, but added, "I had to see my mom."
"I get out here and see her," he said. "I think that's what she was waiting for."
Two or three days after seeing his mother—while in this shelter—Danny got the call. His mom had passed. Now Danny's waiting for the ashes and looking for work here in Dallas.
"We came up here to Dallas to visit his brother, and we got stopped by the police and we didn't have insurance on our car..."
Kelly and Herbert (picture 1, right) live under a highway bridge in Dallas. The have for the better part of a year. What was supposed to be a short visit turned into a 2018 on the streets. They say they never do drugs or even drink. Herbert is willing to work.
"Our car got towed. We didn't have enough money [to get it back]," said Kelly.
Housing arrangements here with family fell through. So they had nowhere to go. Herbert got a job, but Kelly was attacked in her tent the first day he was away. So now he doesn't want to leave her side. And here they are months later.
I asked about alternatives such as shelters or panhandling for bus fare to get back to their small Texas town. But shelters separate men and women. And their place back home is no longer available.
It's easy for both cynics and sympathizers to react to Herbert and Kelly's (and Danny's) situation. There's plenty to point out as to how they put themselves here and also how the streets have a gravity keeping good people down.
I think the deeper takeaway is that in decades past a simple visit to the city for Herbert and Kelly (and Danny) wouldn't have been fraught with such risk. But today with legal fees, housing costs, and toxic street life, small mistakes like driving without insurance (or having an emergency like a dying mother) can eventually lead to months under a bridge.
Next, I sought out an expert to help make sense of this...
"And they felt, 'If we do this housing, it's gonna be in our neighborhoods.'"
This was the concern some members of a Dallas city committee expressed, Steve Davies (picture 2) said, when discussing building housing for the homeless.
Steve was one of the members on this committee addressing the homelessness crisis, and his time with me revealed a common issue: Many want to see the homeless housed, many also don't want to see the homeless housed in their neighborhood.
So, where will they live?
Here is one solution...
They call them "The Cottages" here in Dallas, Texas (picture 1, bottom)
Others may know them as "tiny homes," a movement of minimalism that has been used to assist those without shelter. A community of about 50 cottages (housing older and vulnerable homeless folks) sits here just southeast of downtown.
Look for more about this method to address homelessness, as well as more from the experts and afflicted above, in my upcoming documentary series. With all this content from Dallas, Houston, and the many stops in between, it's now time I settle into a groove piecing all this content together.
Stay tuned here, follow me on social media, and thank you immensely. Without you backing this work, it wouldn't get done.
Feel free to comment on this article to offer feedback on how you feel the work is coming along:) I'm also happy to connect with any of you at anytime via email or even video call!