The Dilemma of Documenting America’s Homeless Problem

By  · Published on June 29th, 2016

There’s a difficulty in addressing such a big issue on film.

In the popular 2003 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, viewers meet a homeless man who personally cares for the titular birds in San Francisco. He’s not depicted as living on the streets, as he’s managed to find temporary rent-free shelter in the cottage of a couple’s home in the posh neighborhood. The man, a musician and writer named Mark Bittner, is sort of a stereotypical bohemian character for the Bay Area, but hardly a good representative of the city’s homeless problem. He is so fascinating, so appealing, that the doc didn’t just win over critics and audiences but Bittner himself later wound up the husband of the film’s director, Judy Irving.

For such a serious issue in America and all over the world, homelessness is often addressed in documentaries as a strange and curious situation, something exotic for audiences to get a peek at. Films expose the hidden masses, like the NYC subway tunnel dwellers in the widely seen 2000 feature Dark Days, or showcase individuals, briefly lifting a tent or box flap to introduce a random character or three with an attempt to garner empathy yet only receiving bewilderment. Docs regularly show us how people live in such a way and rarely focus on why they shouldn’t. Not all romanticize the homeless, but most manage to perpetuate a sense of disconnect.

Another favorite nonfiction film involving the issue is the 1984 feature Streetwise, which is concentrated on street kids in Seattle. Following the intertwining lives of a handful of memorable young characters, the Oscar-nominated doc is so embedded in their underground community and barely interested in the bigger picture of where they fit into the city that it feels like we’re watching a whole other world superimposed over the one we tend to see. Not that it’s a window into some otherwise invisible fantasy realm. It’s definitely real and very, very tragic, but it’s so separate and impossible to relate to for the average viewer that it’s also quite unreal.

A more recent film recognized by the Academy is the 2013 short doc Redemption, which is the typical sort meant to show us a world we’re not aware of or used to thinking about. It spotlights men and women, some of them homeless, who make their money as “canners,” or can and bottle redeemers. It also slightly deals with big issues of rising poverty, homelessness, and joblessness in America, yet it’s still rather light and has an upbeat tone. One of its competitors for the Oscar, which wound up winning, is another doc involving the homeless, and that film, Inocente, equally passes up a daunting atmosphere for one of heartwarming uplift.

Film School Rejects

Focusing on youth should be an effective way of addressing homelessness in America through documentary, but the question becomes whether or not the kids in such films as Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County and The Homestretch are seen as too directly and narrowly deserving of attention and rescue. The latter doc, about homeless teens in Chicago, does little for its cause other than share the stories of a few faces who are otherwise just statistics. Human interest pieces of this sort are endearing but not necessarily enlightening about a problem and how to solve it. That’s a dilemma for documentaries on any important issue.

The thing about homelessness as a subject is it’s either shown as the unusual, in the case of the voyeuristically observational, or as something too common, as in overly familiar. Films with focus on specific issues within the greater issue can therefore be a way in. A decade ago, we got docs such as When I Came Home, which shines a light on the growing amount of homeless veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. Ultimately, though, even that feature, as influential as it may be, gives a sense that it’s reminding us of constant issues throughout history, not opening our eyes to something new and dire.

Homelessness can also become an umbrella subject for docs that deal more urgently with some of its causes, primarily addressing the issues of domestic abuse, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, the economy, the prison rehabilitation system, failings of public education, etc. Simply going for homelessness is too much, too broad, too universal. It’s a problem all over, and while each doc should come off as being a matter of their stories taking place everywhere and therefore anywhere, they may as well be films revealing there’s dirt on the ground or that fire burns. Docs have trouble digging into things we already know about and are accustomed to.

The best kind of doc for the homeless issue then is perhaps the sort with localized reportage. And San Francisco has seen its share of such insular works, including 1983’s To Have and Have Not, produced by the TV station KQED about the then growing gap between rich and poor in the Bay Area, and now HBO’s San Francisco 2.0, a short by Alexandra Pelosi (who is the daughter of US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who serves a district in San Francisco, and also the director of Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County) that tackles the same sort of gap seen today. But homelessness is just one piece of the picture it paints of the city’s economic inequality.

The actual best doc dealing with homelessness in San Francisco is possibly one made non-locally and focused on a particular segment of the epidemic. The 2013 Finnish film American Vagabond, directed by Susanna Helke, shares the story of a young gay couple who are new to the city. They expect an LGBTQ promise land and wind up among the many members of their community living on the street. It’s an intimate and poetic brand of issue film that is effective in engaging on both the micro and macro levels of the crisis. It’s not going to change the world, but no doc on homelessness will.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.