City of Big Shoulders, by Aaron Pinkston
In the opening minutes of Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s new documentary The Homestretch, a shocking statistic flashes across the screen — two-to-three thousand homeless youth are sleeping on Chicago streets every night, a number that doesn’t account for those who can find temporary housing but are otherwise without a home. We’re not talking about adults who became involved in drugs or made other poor life choices, but teenagers, many of whom are enrolled in high school, who have no support from friends or family. Those who are closest to them have turned their backs or have no ability to support, leaving these kids on their own. In total, there are about 19,000 enrolled in Chicago Public Schools that are identified as homeless. The realization that this problem exists is earth-shattering. The Homestretch profiles a number of the youth homeless population in Chicago and the people and organizations that they can turn to when they can’t turn anywhere else.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the young people featured in The Homestretch are smart, talented and willing to contribute to society (I hope we are past this particular stigma of the homeless, but I guess you never know). Some of them have made mistakes, often sparked by the desperation that comes with homelessness, but those featured are trying their best to finish school or find work. It’s also not a surprise that many of the featured youth are racial minorities or among the LGBTQ community. The Homestretch doesn’t wallow in the reasons these men and women are homeless (some of the reasons are pretty obvious without the specifics) and instead focuses on the struggles to improve their lives.
The film looks most specifically at three young adults with different stories that are representative of many. Roque is an undocumented citizen whose parents have neglected doing the work to get him identification. His homeless situation has resulted in poor grades, but he has become more active in school since he was taken in by a teacher. Kasey left her home after coming out as a lesbian. Though she has more of a relationship with her family than the other two profiled, they aren’t supportive of her lifestyle. During the film, Kasey’s journey is the most heartbreaking, as she turns to drugs and is admitted into a mental hospital. Finally, Anthony has the most troubled past, but is perhaps on the most promising path. After being abused while in the foster care system, Anthony is working two jobs, studying for the GRE and trying to gain custody of his young son, who is now a part of the same system that failed him.
Through these stories we see that the problems of being homeless create other problems. Roque, for example, wants to apply for college, but doesn’t have the proper identification required by most college applications. Being homeless and without the signature of his parents (let alone their financial or emotional support), Roque is effectively barred from an education that could help him reverse his situation. This very same problem also makes it impossible to find legal employment. Like so many of America’s social problems, we seem to make it as hard as possible to improve them.
As for the heroes, there are many. The Homestretch doesn’t give any particular organization or individual on this side as much attention as the three young people it primarily profiles, but the number of them and their collective passion shines through the film. Whether it is a teacher who opens her home to homeless students, a GRE tutor, or services that provide comprehensive living services, no matter the size of help provided, it is all presented with equal care. We see these people openly struggling with their true impact while burdened by financial restraints and knowing this is a systemic problem. Without these people, though, Roque, Kasey and Anthony wouldn’t have a chance, and, sadly, there are still many who don’t have access to these wonderful people.
The Homestretch is one of those documentaries that presents a social problem that can’t provide easy answers. Still, the strength of the film’s profiles is enough to give some hope — maybe not the hope of fixing our urban homelessness problems, but there is a clear awareness that there are people who are working really hard to make sure those who have fallen into this situation are cared for and have options to live a more comfortable life. Hopefully seeing these efforts sparks at least one viewer to do a little more. This positivity is a little more effective than simply throwing up a website as the credits roll.