|Produced in collaboration with homeless people and shown
on PBS, this thought provoking homeless video is recommended by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The video is
widely considered to be the best and most broadly applicable case study available on the scope and diversity of
homelessness in America.
The Homeless Home Movie
Published in the September, 1996 issue of PBS station KTCA - 2 newsletter
|Pat Hennessey, a St. Paul native, took his camera to
the Twin Cities streets to make "The Homeless Home Movie." The documentary he brought home, which aired earlier this
week is an honest look at life for the homeless.
Without a script for an agenda, Hennessey follows the lives of five people who are homeless.
Ken and Debbie, an alcoholic couple;
West Side, a Vietnam vet who "lives out" by choice;
Tina, pregnant teen; and
Greg Horan, a former New York publisher. Through these
individuals' stories, Hennessey shows the depth and complexity of the problems each faces.
Hennessey initiated this project after personal encounters with homelessness. While in college, he lived in a downtown
Minneapolis warehouse where he would often wake up to find homeless people sleeping on the lobby sofa. Hennessey found
himself fascinated with their life stories and decided to combine his interest in the homeless with his interest in
documentaries. Here, Hennessey shares his inspiration for the four-year project and his views on homelessness.
"Everybody has options. But the homeless have a lot more barriers to overcome to get anywhere in life. If you're strung
out and have addictions, you're broke, your family's disowned you, or you have a ten year gap in your resume, you've
got some serious things to overcome.
"All these elements have conspired against these people. But the breakdown of the family is a major point. That was the
common denominator that held together everyone I met. Ultimately, what seperates people with problems from people who
are homeless with problems is family. If you have a family to fall back on, you're generally going to be okay. These
people typically don't have families for whatever reason. All of them time and time again - Greg Horan, Tina, West
Side, Ken - problems seemed to be rooted in the lack of family.
"Documentaries usually have a working hypotheses, which translates into having an ax to grind, where reality fits into
the narration. I didn't want to do that. My film is open-ended, not propagandistic. It's a window onto homelessness
that allows you to make your own decisions.
"When I was filming, I thought it was an economic issue, that the homeless were refugees from economic dislocation. I
thought it would follow the script that the advocates had been preaching for 10 years: the homeless are just exactly
like us and through no fault of their own they're homeless.
"Instead, it was a mix of problems. Often times, it was personal situations: abuse as a child, chemical abuse, or their choice not
to finish high school. So I had to adapt my views to fit the reality of what I was encountering.
"Their problems aren't necessarily The System. Many of their problems are individual issues, but it's hard to separate
the two. For example, maybe you become an alcoholic because you're tired of trying to make a living on $4.25 an hour
which is futile anyway so you give up.
"When you're in a game of musical chairs there's a limited number of opportunities or chairs. If you're the one with
the problem maybe a mental disability as subtle as a bad attitude - you're the one who sits out.
"As things have gotten more competitive, the people who could have made it 10 years ago don't make it today. The
consequence is that they live on the street. There's less housing, less welfare, so the losers nowadays lose big. They
go all the way to the bottom, which is the street, where 20 years ago it might not have been the street. It might have
been a single room occupancy for $120 a month, which typically don't exist like they use to.
"My own experience with homelessness is fairly limited. I spent a year traveling in my bus, but that's vagabonding.
That's a different world from homelessness. But I met people living out all the time. I didn't have much money, but
living out by choice is a whole other world. I always had family to fall back on, whereas people on the street didn't."
"Advocates in the past have presented it as simple: if we just provide housing, if we just provide this and that, we
could solve it. The reality is that to solve homelessness, you have to go way beyond homelessness. Homelessness is just
the manifestation of the underlying disease, which is child abuse, economic dislocation, economic injustice, the
breakdown of the family, chemical dependency, lack of jobs, and so on. The cure is to overhaul society, which is why we
haven't cured it.
"But how do you fix broken childhoods? West Side has a lot of problems stemming from Vietnam, so what do you do? Well,
ultimately you create a healthy world where people don't go off to war or get beat up by their mother and father until
they're 13 and leave home. That's a long way from just putting them in a house.
"If it were as simple as just putting people in a room, Ken and Debbie would be cured. But as you can see at the end
of the movie, just having a place hasn't cured their problems at all." - Tracy Miller - KTCA