Duquesne University hosts a Human Rights Film Series which is now in its tenth year. This year, the series was titled “For the Sake of Humanity” and featured six films about different human rights topics that are particularly relevant in today’s political climate. The fourth film in the series was “The Homestretch,” a documentary about America’s homelessness epidemic and its specific effects on teenagers. The event also featured speaker Peggy Harris, President and CEO of ThreeRiversYouth, a company in Pittsburgh whose mission is combatting homelessness.
Ms. Harris opened the event by discussing the foster care, group homes, and assistance for individuals dealing with homelessness and eviction that ThreeRiversYouth provides in a multisystem continuum of care. She presented a case example which highlighted the cyclical nature of homelessness as homeless teenagers transition into adulthood. The film then began, starting with some statistics. There are approximately 22,000 homeless students in the Chicago School System. The documentary then presented the cases of Roque, Kasey, and Anthony, three homeless teenagers in various living situations.
Roque is a child of immigrants who no longer has contact with his family due to his father having problems with immigration. When the documentary begins, Roque is living with one of his teachers. He is trying to get into college, but has a 1.66 GPA when we first meet him. Roque is also acting in a local rendition of “Hamlet” and discusses how he can relate to Hamlet’s feelings of anger.
Kasey also discusses Shakespeare and identifies “Othello” as her favorite book. Kasey’s mother kicked her out when Kasey came out to her as a lesbian. In the documentary Kasey is living at Teen Living Programs’ Belfort House, a transitional home. Kasey, like Roque, is determined to graduate school and says that it is not a choice for her.
Anthony was sexually, mentally, and physically abused as a child when he was adopted by his sister’s father. In the documentary he has entered a program for homeless youth after earning his GED and is able to get an internship and move into an apartment with support from the program. He is a poet and rapper and uses lyric-writing as a coping technique.
The documentary also showcases the “helpers”: the teacher that Roque is living with, the Belfort House where Kasey lives, and The Night Ministry’s The Crib, which provides emergency overnight housing to homeless children and teenagers in Chicago. A woman who works at The Crib explains that homeless children get often get overlooked. Funding to organizations like The Crib often gets cut because they cannot eradicate homelessness. She explains that it is more important to be present and welcoming to the individuals using The Crib than anything else, but this is not what government officials see. During the documentary, The Crib was dealing with closure while already needing to turn away approximately 20 individuals every night. As the film concludes, we see Roque getting accepted to college, Kasey finding a new place to live where she finally has her own room, and Anthony starting a job and living in his own apartment, ultimately three success stories.
Following the film, Ms. Harris talked about her reflections on the film based on her experience working with this population. She said that the documentary was accurate in many areas, including the discussion of couch-surfing, the criminalization of survival behaviors by homeless teenagers, the use of trash bags to carry all of the belongings of a homeless child, and a discussion of not creating a paper trail because of a fear of deportation among undocumented individuals. She went on to say that men and people of color are more affected by homelessness, which was evident in the case studies in the film. Ms. Harris pointed out that individuals in the LGBT community are often abused which can lead to homelessness. This was echoed in the film with Kasey’s story of her mother kicking her out. Ms. Harris also talked about the importance of school in changing the narrative for homeless children who often have issues with truancy and whose grades thus suffer. In the film we see Kasey dealing with mental health issues which Ms. Harris said can be a major problem with homeless individuals who cannot afford treatment.
Ms. Harris also mentioned that Roque’s story was the “soft side” of homelessness and ultimately the goal for other homeless teenagers as he is able to go to college and will likely break the cycle of homelessness. However, she also pointed out that there are major boundary issues with Roque living with his teacher, saying that this would not be allowed at ThreeRiversYouth. Personally while watching the film I wondered about the ethics of filming the three individuals featured in the movie, as well as the countless other individuals that we see them interact with and who are staying at The Crib. While the film is raising awareness of the homeless epidemic, it seems exploitive of these particular children. However, the stories of Kasey, Anthony, and Roque are meant to show the “bright side” of youth who are struggling with homelessness, according to the films’ website.
For anyone looking to help homeless individuals, Ms. Harris first suggested outreach and the importance of communicating with the general community, as well as spreading information on campus. Another idea for clubs or individuals is creating kits for the homeless that include food, socks, and band-aids, as well as feminine hygiene products for women, which Ms. Harris highlighted as some of the most items homeless individuals need most. To become even more involved, one can donate money, supplies, and materials directly to ThreeRiversYouth or apply to be a volunteer or an intern in a variety of positions with the organization. For more information, and to apply to volunteer, visit www.threeriversyouth.org.
I learned a lot about the realities of homelessness from watching the video and from Ms. Harris’ presentation. I think that homelessness can often be very ugly and something that we do not want to think about, but documentaries like this serve to truly humanize homeless individuals. In the film, we feel great empathy for the three individuals who are featured because we realize how much we have in common with them. I also did not think about how many people my age are affected by homelessness, which made me truly consider my privilege. Throughout the event, I thought about our discussion of Warsan Shire’s poetry and the idea of what home can be. Shire presents the trauma and her own lived experience of immigration. I saw aspects of these ideas in each story. For example, Anthony writes poems and raps about his experiences and this allows him to process and deal with them, as Shire’s poetry did for her. Roque turns to the poetry and drama of Shakespeare, allowing him to put on a mask of another person through performance. Kasey mentions that she has never had a space of her own, which made me think about Shire’s poetry and her discussion of stability in “Conversations About Home.” The idea of an identity and a place to call home is present throughout several of the texts we have read in our class so far and this was a predominant idea throughout the film and presentation.