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November 11, 2011

An Unflinching, Compassionate Look at Homelessness

New documentary explores the lives, and complexities, of LA's homeless

The tagline to the new documentary Without a Home says it all: "She wanted to understand their lives. They changed her life forever." The tagline might have also added that she -- budding young filmmaker Rachel Fleischer -- also played a role in changing some of their lives too, at least a few of the 90,000 homeless in Los Angeles.


As a little girl from a well-to-do show-biz family (her father, Charles Fleischer voiced the lead character in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Rachel had a sensitive heart for the homeless. So when she grew up, she decided to buy a camera, go to Skid Row, and document their stories. And she found, as many documentarians do, that it was difficult to stay behind the camera and remain an objective observer. Watching Fleischer get to know these folks, and then wrestle with just how much she should (or shouldn't) get involved in their lives is part of this 74-minute film's draw. Any of us who have worked with homeless people have weighed those same things: How much should I get involved, and how do I help without enabling?

It's one thing to see Fleischer give one person a ride to a destination a few blocks away. It's another when one of her subjects asks for $50 to pay rent, or to spend the night at her house because he's out on the street. How will she respond? She wants to do the right thing, but doesn't always instantly know what that is. Fortunately, as Fleischer immerses herself into these lives, she's also meeting professionals in ministries and organizations that have worked with homeless people for years, and she learns the ropes quickly -- including the stark fact that some homeless folks might say they want help, but in the end, they really don't want to put forth the effort to change. Such stories are heartbreaking, and we see a few of them here. But we also see a few stories that are working their way toward a hopeful, redemptive ending.

Along the way, we meet heroin addicts who are high on the stuff, a guy who plays a homemade banjo on the street for a living, and a family that goes through eviction after eviction, just biding time till the dad can find steady work. And we watch Fleischer get involved in varying degrees, always asking herself, "Where do I draw the line?" It's easy to put yourself in her shoes and ask the same question.

Fleischer told The Jewish Journal that her faith definitely influenced the project and the way she went about it: “Tikkun olam, the idea of helping people and repairing the world, has always been, as far as I can remember, a big part of who I am. And one of the things that I really love about Judaism is that it’s so much a part of our culture to help other people and give back. I think it’s a very human idea, but I also think it’s a very Jewish idea to want to give back.”

At the end of the film, it sounds like she's got a pretty good grasp on the sociological and psychological complexities of homelessness:

"I wish it were as simple as putting a roof over everyone's head," Fleischer says in a voiceover. "But with or without a home, many of these people will continue to struggle. We have to be willing to examine the psychological wounds that brought so many of them to the streets in the first place, and then to respond accordingly. The feeling that initially drew me to document their lives ended up pulling me into their lives. And now I understand that as humans, we have a divine privilege to effect change, and when we do, the most extraordinary things happen."

Here's where you can buy the film, and here's the trailer:


While I don't doubt that there are people psychologically programed to failure, a lot more people have simply given up once they have become homeless because of how people try to kick us when we are down. I am proof of this.

The Reader's Digest version of what happened to me is I graduated from Clemson in 2008 with a BA in Philosophy and went to the University of South Florida in 2009 for my MA in Religious Studies. (I went back to school to become a college/seminary instructor.) At that time I transferred my job from SC to FL, but I suffered a minor heart attack in Nov. 2009. I was back to work in five days. My employer let me work through the Christmas holiday then fired me for missing the five days I was out, AND they told the State Unemployment Agency I quit. The State investigated, and sided with me, awarding me unemployment comp (this was at the time Obamacare was first rolled out, and I made $3.00 more an hour than others doing the exact same job; you do the math as to why it happened.) In the initial investigation the State was told I was a full time student as well as working full time.

I continued school while unsuccessfully looking for work. Two of my kids do get a small SSI check each month, (they have Asperger's Syndrome), and between that and unemployment we barely made it by. I graduated this past May. When, like a good-little citizen I informed Unemployment of my new situation they investigated me again, this time to determine if my being a full time student would have “interfered” with me taking a full time job. The State suspended my unemployment comp, despite the fact I told them I couldn't pay my rent if they did. The telephone representative actually told me, and I QUOTE, "There are homeless shelters, Mr. Bryant."

Which is exactly where they sent me.

After two and a half months of no unemployment, they resolved the "investigation"; I spoke two supervisors at the Agency for Workforce Innovation. The one in charge of conducting my investigation said she didn't understand why I was investigated in the first place. Given that the State of Florida has an open government law and those conversations were recorded, it’s all verifiable. According to the attorneys I've talked to, I have no legal claim against the State of Florida or my former employer. I had been out of work for 21 months, despite having 20 years work experience (including both retail and property management) AND a Master's Degree, and I have had exactly one interview for the job even remotely like I trained for-Prince Mohammad bin Fadj University in Saudi Arabia needed English teachers... I didn't get the job. And what was supposed to protect me - Unemployment insurance - has kicked me out to the street.

I am now homeless; I living with my wife, my three children and grandson in a public campground in Seneca, South Carolina, in a camper borrowed from a friend and eating food given to us by a local Church. I am writing this from a nearby McDonalds, where I can get internet access to continue looking for work in my field – I just started a job last week, but it has nothing to do with my degree work and doesn’t pay much. We received word just after I got the job the SSI was being cut in half because the camper loan is considered income. With an eviction on our record, neither private or public housing (which I refuse to enter anyway) will touch us.

I need two months worth of income to completely end this nightmare, but every time I take a step to set things right the government does something to pull the rug out from under me, forcing me to delay and retool my efforts to get us out of this mess. And forgive how Machiavellian this sounds but their timing seems too good to be mere chance.

I went back to school specifically to become a college instructor, and because of this economy and the way both parties seem to want to put us into a caste system, I may never get to work in that capacity. I'm 46 years old, white, $60,000.00 in debt, no decent job prospects, and could lose my kids at any moment (although my kids’ schools have been very supportive so far) - they kind of person Charles Krauthammer said might never work again. And lest someone think I'm simply being racist with that "White" comment, that was the conclusion of a Hispanic woman who was staying at the Salvation Army shelter we initially stayed at in Lakeland, Fl - The SA, as a condition of staying there, demand you apply for food stamps, which we were denied for, and this illegal alien is the one who said the only reason we were denied was because we were White. Its bad when the illegals are pitying you.

It turns out government had its grasps into me in ways I didn't know - just by the way the system is constructed. Beyond giving clothes and food, all churches funnel you towards the government for housing assistance, and that is the only game in town for many people, because the "affordable" private housing is, at least in this area, all rat and roach infested trailers with collapsing roofs and holes in the wall that should be condemned, not rented to others.

And once you become homeless, you find there are no shortage of people that look to take advantage of you - we lost over $700.00 in an aborted move to West Virginia because a "High School friend" of my wife who ran a trailer park said she would overlook our eviction - only to show us a trailer with no toilets. Not "trailer with no WORKING toilets" but NO toilets, NOR pipes to hook them up with. Were it not for the charity of a West Virginia Church we would have been stuck there losing ALL of our belongings because we had to turn in the truck with no money to store anything. And that is not the only instance of someone wanting to take advantage of us. And that wasn't the worst case of someone wanting to kick us while we are down.

Just before Thanksgiving my oldest daughter got a job at Walmart. Two managers there decided to 'help' - one had their late grandfather's house for sale and said we could use it for two months rent and utility free, and they'd even stock the refrigerator the first month - they would take care of our survival expenses so I could get the eviction payed off and end this nightmare once and for all.

We moved in and we gave the camper back. They kicked us out a week later without cause. THEY said the house sold, but we called the realtor - it hasn't sold.

They went through our meager belongings, kept a few of our nicer things, and tossed the rest out onto the carport in a heaping mound. They left us with no camper to go back to, two special needs children and a two year old grandbaby, and the temperatures dropping into the upper thirties. The eviction was't court ordered, so technically its illegal even without a lease agreement, because verbal agreements are binding in SC. They took a collection among the Walmart employees to help us, but that money never made it to us, and we weren't there long enough to have used that much electricity in the house - where did tne money go? And did I mention they kept some of our stuff? - imagine what would have happened if we had moved our stuff from storage, like they wanted us to do? The Oconee Sheriff's Office is investigating, but not very vigorously; we're just a homeless family after all. And try getting a lawyer when you can't pay a retainer?

If Hollywood were to write a movie about what has happened since we became homeless, people would think it was a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker film. You cannot believe it until you have experienced it; I wouldn't have wished this on Osama bin Laden. It is getting very hard to keep the positive outlook I need to get us out of this situation - both my wife and son are growing more depressed, and it is getting really cold at night. I feel forgotten.

Even the strongest of men cannot stand to be tortured for long before they break. I am scrambling to get out of this Hell before that happens to me. I wonder how many of these people in this film got the way they are the same way?