Everywhere I go, after watching our powerful documentary, My Own Four Walls, most people want to know how to help. My suggestion may seem overly simplistic, but it's critical: Learn about homeless families/youth.
How many of us carry our own prejudices? My hand is up. Even today, when I see an obese person, my family's old tapes play--the kind that make cruel remarks about people being fat. My more enlightened (and slightly chunky) self knows people have many reasons for their obesity. Some may be within their power to address, some far beyond it, and most land somewhere in the middle. Even that's an overly simplistic description.
Our country suffers no shortage of issues, valid and distorted, with family and youth homelessness continuing to get the short edge of the stick in media coverage and resources. Poverty and economic hardship are spreading like kudzu (a southern thing, look it up!). The estimated 3 million households predicted to lose their abodes this year will join over 2.5 million from last year. Poverty rates soar as the economy swoons. It's ugly, and it's everywhere.
Families and individuals swirl in the brutal vortex of survival. Nowadays it's far easier to become homeless and much harder to escape this shackled existence. Although solid data doesn't exist, estimates of homeless families and teens shoot upward to 10 million when you count those who lost housing due to hardship who now bounce between family, friends, acquaintances, and no-tell motels.
When I ran a shelter, which I did in Aurora at Hesed House for 13 years and before that in Joliet, I'd never describe the process as "pretty," or even humane. We tried to be hospitable and kind. But reality, and our prejudices, often interfered; and children, teens, women and men ripped raw by their experience of serious trauma often were inadvertently grossly neglected. I'd suspect that is true in just about every shelter.
For the past 5 years I've traveled 90,000 miles on the backroads of this great nation, living in a modest RV that I've dubbed "Tillie." I've filmed interviews with some amazing people--courageous children, teens and women who shared what it was like to experience homelessness. "My Own Four Walls" was my first documentary--I filmed it and Northern Illinois University's Professor Laura Vazquez and her talented students worked with me to produce it. Thousands have seen, and have been deeply touched by this 20-minute film.
Four years ago, Laura invited me to work with her on an ambitious documentary about families' experience of homelessness. With the blessing of HEAR US, my nonprofit organization's board of directors, and generous support from a plethora of supporters I accepted the challenging invitation.
It's been an incredible process, touching me at my core. Seven women ripped off the shrouds of secrecy common to those embarrassed about their stumbles into homelessness. They shared intimate details. They described, comprehensively and painfully, their nomadic lives. They erased stereotypes--the kind swirling about "welfare moms," women who bear "too many" children, drug and alcohol abusers, foster care, domestic violence, the agony of not being able to provide for their families, and the fear of life on the edge, with its ever-present danger of returning to homelessness.
All of that and more is contained in our new documentary, "on the edge." It's a tough film to watch, but it's the best place to start if you really want to understand the far reaching devastation of homelessness that touches millions in our wealth-distorted nation.
On Wednesday, April 21st, we're holding a preview screening of "on the edge" in Aurora (Annunciation Parish gym, 1840 Church Road, 7:00 p.m.) in conjunction with Mutual Ground. We're asking for free will donations so the economy won't be a barrier.
For my part, I hope families and kids I knew at Hesed House will come. I want to listen to them, to see if this film validates their experiences. I want to offer my apologies for not hearing what they were saying, and for inadequately helping them cope with their traumas. And I want to hear what they have to say.
We all have a lot to learn. Then we need to act upon it. This is my humble effort. Please join me, if you dare.