About a dozen winters ago I moved to the nation’s capitol as a newly minted college graduate eager to explore, but not completely sold on my decision to travel seven hundred miles from home to start my career. Three months later I found myself sleeping in my car.
It was difficult to find an apartment with basic amenities on my salary and tackle student loan repayment. So I rented a small, drywalled-off room in the basement of a home of a seasoned Washington, D.C. federal worker.
Despite my gainful employment, agreement to walk her dog on nights that she had to work late and graciousness while occupying a less than ideal living space, she decided that my occasional questions and comparisons of suburban Washington, D.C. life to my beloved hometown illustrated that I wasn’t assimilating quickly enough to life as a cookie-cut D.C. commuter.
So after a few misunderstandings that had nothing to do failure to pay rent, property damage, loud music or a late night partying, she diagnosed me, unprofessionally, as suffering from “victimhood” and told me that I had to leave her basement.
Back then I was too naïve to understand that she had no cause to remove me from the house. So as a proud Chicagoan not inclined enduring verbal abuse, I packed everything in my Mitsubishi Mirage and left the key in the in room. During the two weeks I was homeless, I was fortunate enough to have workplace access to a shower and the Internet to search for a new place to live.
While my experience can’t compare with that of the three Chicago teens profiled in The Homestretch, an ITVS produced film by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, I can feel their pain.
The cinema verité film takes viewers on a journey through the lives of Roqúe, Kasey and Anthony, three high school students on the cusp of adulthood, as they try to find stable living situations to serve as literal launching pads to their ambitious educational and professional pursuits. Their stories are engaging.
During the filming, Roqúe rehearses for his high school production of Hamlet while at the same time living his own Shakespearian-style tragedy. Homeless falls upon the undocumented teen after his father is deported. He sees his mother’s quick remarriage as a betrayal. He confides in a teacher who opens her basement to her student and mentors him as he reluctantly steps out of the shadows to apply for admission to Northeastern University.
Kasey appears to have been raised by a mother who herself wasn’t quite prepared for parenthood. There’s a scene in the film on Kasey’s graduation day where she lectures her mom about not making plans the day before to get to the ceremony on time. Homelessness for Kasey happened when she told her mom she was a lesbian.
Then there’s Anthony, who in addition to searching for a stable living space and the skills to make a living, has a strong incentive to make it happen. The teen has a newborn son living in foster care in neighboring Indiana for whom he is trying to regain custody.
Kasey and Anthony succeed at finding support through local programs for homeless teens and youth. They get connected to programs that offer subsidized housing and job skills training.
The film might be used as a selling point for advocates trying to increase or maintain funding for their work. By the end of the hour all three teens, with the support of the caring counselors and teachers, seem to be navigating pathways to success. But there still are challenges for a growing number of teens that need access to these services.
The film screened Feb. 24th on Capitol Hill and at Washington, D.C.’s West End Cinema as part of a national effort to engage law and policymakers about homelessness among young people. According to statistics presented in the film, 1.6 million teens and young adults across the country are homeless.
Roqúe, Kasey and Anthony were fortunate, but there are just as many teens who for one reason or another don’t get connected to such support. Some of them aren’t aware of the programs. Others are too embarrassed to let others know they need help. And for some, the wait time for a room in a teen shelter can be as long as six months.
In a post-screening discussion, filmmaker Anne de Mare along with a panel of experts offered advice to policymakers that include ensuring every teen who wants a high school diploma get the support toward earning the credential, making greater investments in family stabilization, increasing the number beds in teen shelters, lowering barriers to services, educating the public as well as an overall increase in society’s level of compassion for others.
“Three of the teens in the film are no longer with us on this planet,” de Mare said. “So this is a matter of life and death.”
The Homestretch, a co-production between Spargel Productions and Kartemquin Films with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is part of the spring 2015 Independent Lens slate of programming and is set to air nationwide on PBS stations on April 13.