Anne de Mare, Kirsten Kelly. The Homestretch. Chicago: Kartemquin Films, 2014. Documentary film, DVD, 90 minutes.
Reviewed by Jessie Speer (Syracuse University)
Published on H-Citizenship (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Sean H. Wang (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Syracuse University)
Filming Youth Homelessness: No Easy Solutions
In 2013, the number of homeless youth in the United States hit a historic high of 2.5 million, amounting to one out of every thirty children. In this climate, filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly spent three years in Chicago filming Homestretch: Homelessness Is Your Situation, Not Who You Are, which has screened in cities across the nation and aired this year on PBS to an estimated audience of one million. As with the other recent documentaries on the subject--most notably Lost in the Crowd (2010), American Vagabond (2013), and Lost in America (2015)--de Mare and Kelly’s film portrays intimate stories in the lives of homeless youth.
Shot over the course of three years, Homestretch follows Kasey, Roque, and Anthony, three charismatic teenagers. In the beginning of the film, Anthony and Kasey are staying at a youth shelter with more than twenty other people. Anthony is on probation while working towards earning his G.E.D and regaining custody of his infant son. Kasey is a confident jokester and occasional marijuana smoker whose mother kicked her out after she came out as lesbian. Roque is a shy high-school senior living with one of his teachers and performing the lead role in the school production of Hamlet. The film follows their ups and downs, and interviews the teachers and shelter operators who help them along the way. During editing, the filmmakers intentionally focused on the arc of each teenager’s story instead of the political context of homelessness. As Kelly said, "We had all these pieces and all these moments, but it was too issue-driven. It didn't have an emotional anchor." The result is a film that is deeply moving and personal, but that also downplays the role of structural factors in reproducing homelessness.
Although all of the featured teenagers come from low-income communities of color, the film does not place homelessness in the context of structural racism and poverty in the United States. It also does not address economic questions, despite the fact that extreme poverty and homelessness are the inevitable result of capitalist processes that require a large sector of unemployed workers and high housing costs. As a result, the film inadvertently implicates the behaviors of homeless youth and their parents as the root of the problem and presents greater funding for agencies and shelters as the solution, while avoiding a broader social critique.
In seeking to undo the stigma that currently surrounds youth homelessness in the United States, the filmmakers reinforce a classic trope of distinguishing between the worthy and unworthy poor. As Kelly said, “We wanted to break the negative stereotypes of what people think of as homeless youth--we didn’t want to reinforce the misconception that these kids are all drug addicts sleeping under the bridge.... The film will bring a human face to this crisis and through the surprising journeys of these three kids--kids who have tremendous potential--it will build empathy and awareness.”
The filmmakers chose to focus on Kasey, Roque, and Anthony after having interviewed a dozen people. They gave no explanation of how they chose these three teenagers, other than the fact that they have “tremendous potential.” All three are incredibly bright, articulate, well-read, optimistic, and determined. Anthony is a poet devoted to taking on the role of a father. Kasey is an upbeat and humorous artist whose favorite book is Othello. Roque is a shy intellectual who is committed to attending university. There is no indication that any of them have engaged in serious crime or drug use. They are clean, well dressed, polite, and are not sleeping on the streets. As Kelly said, “We were not interested in perpetuating this image of the kid on the sidewalk.”
By the end of the film, Kasey, Anthony, and Roque have managed to climb out of homelessness largely by dint of their own “tremendous potential.” By focusing on the teens’ hard-earned successes, the film overstates the role of individual perseverance. It insinuates that homeless youth should not be stigmatized only so long as they are palatable to middle-class viewers, and that the “kid on the sidewalk” and “drug addict under the bridge” are implicated in their ongoing homelessness.
In contrast to the sympathetic teenagers, it is easy to read as Homestretch as a condemnation of the teens’ parents, as many of the reviewers do just that. In one particularly wrenching scene, Kasey’s mother visits her at the youth shelter. The camera is close to her face as she sits down to dinner. One of the filmmakers asks what she thinks of the shelter. Her eyes are wet and she avoids looking at the camera before saying, “It’s pretty nice.” The scene ends abruptly, and at no point do the filmmakers interview Kasey’s mother or explore her living situation, other than to briefly depict her basement apartment on the south side of Chicago. Yet in all likelihood, her own story is wrapped into larger histories of poverty and racism, and the difficulties of being a single mother--a demographic overwhelmingly affected by poverty, eviction, and violence. Yet instead of telling this story, the filmmakers use her as a stand-in for the intolerable fact of homophobia, implying that bad parenting alone is an adequate explanation of youth homelessness.
Roque’s and Anthony’s parents are even more invisible, and just as condemned. Roque’s father is blamed for his failure to care for his son, yet he has been the victim of repeated immigration raids and lives a highly mobile lifestyle under constant threat of deportation. By removing the teenagers’ stories from their families’ context, the film inadvertently blames homelessness on broken family structures without conveying the challenges that those families faced because of larger structural problems like poverty, racism, and immigration policing.
In contrast to the failed parents, the film depicts a slew of middle-class teachers and shelter workers coming to the teenagers’ aid. The filmmakers explicitly champion the policy-oriented goal of increasing funding for homeless agencies. As Kelly said, “We see many people and organizations that do incredible work in supporting these youth--but they are incredibly underfunded and cannot keep up with the rising numbers of this crisis.” Both of the shelters featured are empowering spaces to the youth who stay there. When one of the shelters closes due to lack of funding, staff and teenagers are shown embracing and wondering what they will do going forward. Yet by the end of the film, the shelter has reopened again with new funding, and all of the teenagers have been provided with housing: Kasey graduates from high school and gains housing through a local organization, Anthony obtains subsidized housing and petitions for custody of his infant son, and Roque is accepted into a local university. The ending is a “happy” one, designed to leave audiences troubled but uplifted by the knowledge that there is a solution, and that solution lies in providing more funding for shelter and housing opportunities. Yet the shelters depicted in Homestretch are not typical spaces. Activists and critical scholars have long argued homelessness assistance reproduces bureaucratic structures for the management of poor people that often pathologize more than empower, and seek to reform individuals rather than tackle larger questions of power and inequality.
In most regards, Homestretch stands in stark contrast to perhaps the most influential film on youth homelessness in the United States, Martin Bell’s 1984 Academy-Award nominated documentary Streetwise that follows the lives of nine homeless teenagers in Seattle. The young people in Streetwise did not sleep in shelters. Two of them lived at a squalid hotel, two squatted in an abandoned building, and many others lived in and out of the homes of their struggling parents. In one scene, a young person challenges a local homeless shelter for taking advantage of the poor. Rather than depicting their interactions with teachers, caretakers, and shelter operators, the bulk of Streetwise consists of shots of young people talking amongst each other on the street.
Unlike Homestretch, the film does not attempt to package its subjects in a way that is comfortable to middle-class viewers. It depicts their daily survival activities: stealing, prostituting, pimping, smoking weed, selling drugs, selling blood, hopping trains, begging, and dumpster diving. Yet through careful attention, the film reveals the teenagers’ humanity without judgment or condemnation.
Streetwise filmmakers also interviewed the young people’s parents, and enabled viewers to get a fuller understanding of their family context. Although Streetwise does not adopt any particular agenda, interviews with parents have the effect of revealing them as real people with their own stories. One mother is a waitress who struggles with addiction, eviction, and domestic violence. When we first meet her, she is serving her daughter a slice of apple pie. She acknowledges her daughter’s sex work with the tone of an exasperated parent realizing she has lost parental control. Another mother is shown hugging her son close and telling him his home is there when he decides to get clean. In one of the film’s most painful and moving interactions, viewers witness a father’s desperate attempt to parent his son from behind the glass window of his prison facility. He scolds his son, checks his arms for needle marks, and tells him he loves him. But in this unflinching look at youth homelessness, the boy hangs himself before the end of the film. Three other children would die a few years later, two murdered, and one from AIDS.
Although the film captures some of the most haunting aspects of youth homelessness in 1980s Seattle, it is a surprisingly unsentimental account. The only music featured is a homeless man’s rendition of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” captured live on the streets. And although the film shows parents and children with all of their flaws intact, it does not simplify their struggles, or offer comfortable solutions. Perhaps because of its composed ambiguity, Streetwise leaves the viewer grappling with profound and disturbing questions about poverty in the United States, while Homestretch leaves viewers gratified that--with a little help and funding--teenagers can overcome their condition.
. National Center on Family Homelessness, America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Youth Homelessness, http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/mediadocs/280.pdf.
. Sean Means, “Sundance Documentary Lab Finding the Story in the Footage,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 25, 2013, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/56612780-223/lab-film-sundance-documentary.html.csp.
. Don Mitchell, “Homelessness, American Style,” Urban Geography 32, no. 7 (2011).
. Sarah Toce, “Chicago Homeless Teens Featured in ‘The Homestrech’,” Windy City Times, March 19, 2014, http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/images/publications/wct/2014-03-19/current.pdf.
. Terrance Ross, “Young, Homeless--and Invisible,” The Atlantic, February 11, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/young-homelessand-invisible/385355/.
. See Joseph Erbentraut, “Youth Homelessness Is an Invisible Issue, but it Doesn’t Have To Be,” Huffington Post, September 7, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/07/the-homestretch-documentary_n_5761946.html?utm_hp_ref=tw; and Aaron Pinkston, “City of Big Shoulders,” Battleship Pretension, September 11, 2014, http://battleshippretension.com/city-of-big-shoulders-by-aaron-pinkston/.
. National Center on Family Homelessness, America’s Youngest Outcasts.
, Toce, “Chicago Homeless Teens Featured.”
. Teresa Gowan, Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
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Jessie Speer. Review of de Mare, Anne; Kelly, Kirsten, The Homestretch.
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