Filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s previous collaboration, Asparagus! Stalking the American Life, about Oceana County, Michigan where Kelly is from, was called “a charmer” by the Kansas City Star. For their new film, the pair went into more urban territory – Chicago, Illinois – for a look at an issue that is widespread across the United States: teenage homelessness. The Homestretch, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday night, April 13 (check local listings) was declared “inspiring” by the Christian Science Monitor and offers glimpses of hope in what are undeniably troubled lives.
The filmmakers jointly answered some questions we had about making a film about homelessness, in which the main subjects led lives constantly in flux.
Why did you want to make The Homestretch?
As directors, we had been searching a long time for a project that would speak to both our hearts. We found the first seeds for The Homestretch when a young high school student that Kirsten was working with on a theater project revealed to her that he was homeless and completely on his own. It was one of those moments in life when everything just stopped: How could this be? This kid was bright, talented, funny, and ambitious. He was going to school, attending rehearsals, and seemed so normal. But each night he didn’t know where he was going to sleep. He was working hard to make something happen for himself while being alone in an impossible situation, and he was going to great lengths to hide his circumstances. For us, he put a completely unexpected face on homeless youth.
We knew we wanted to tell the stories of some of the thousands of other kids like him, kids who shatter the harmful negative stereotype that many people have about homeless youth. When we first started exploring the issue more in 2010, we discovered there were over 15,000 homeless students registered in Chicago Public Schools (that number has now climbed to over 22,000), and no one seemed to be talking about this as a crisis. We knew we had to make this film.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
Simply staying in contact with our young subjects was one of our biggest challenges. Unfortunately, the lives of homeless youth are highly chaotic. The instability and stress they experience can be heartbreaking. They have learned not to count on anything. One day, they have a cell phone they can text with; the next, they don’t. They can crash somewhere one night, but have to find a different place the next. We worked to allow some of this chaos into the film by including cell-phone footage they captured themselves while alone, recorded phone calls and text exchanges. The best footage we got was often shot on the fly as we spent long days and nights with our subjects.
You talked a little about how you came across Roque for the film. How did you come to know and choose Anthony and Kasey, too?
We found Anthony and Kasey while we were spending time getting to know the young people at Teen Living Program’s Belfort House Transitional Home in Chicago. They were both dynamic individuals who were working so hard to build futures for themselves despite facing the incredible obstacles of dealing with issues of homelessness and traumatic family situations. We were inspired by their journeys and how they bravely wanted to share their stories to help others.
And how did you gain the trust of those kids who are featured in it?
Most homeless youth have been profoundly betrayed by the adults in their lives, and we were always acutely aware of this fact. We worked closely with their teachers, counselors, and social workers to help frame what it would mean to each of our young subjects to work on the film with us. Ultimately, trust is a matter of time and patience more than anything. Sometimes, because of their isolation from friends and family, we were the only people who showed up for our subjects in big moments, and it was very important to us to be with the young people off camera as well as on. We wanted them to always feel in control of their own stories, and the sharing they did with us was always safe.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
[Semi-spoilers here] One of the most moving scenes for us is when Kasey moves into her first apartment. There are so many emotional layers to what is happening in that scene – from the memory of her recent hospitalization to witnessing the complex relationship with her mother and grandmother, from the pain of her isolation to navigating the uncertainty of another housing program in a strange neighborhood with a new roommate. The audience is taken on the long journey that Kasey faces, driving almost two hours away from the only community she has ever known to a new place that feels isolated. We miss the support and structure of Belfort House immediately.
And yet through it all, Kasey’s resilience, humor, and optimism shine through. We are constantly amazed at how vulnerable Kasey seems during parts of this scene, and how brave. Moving with few belongings into a completely empty apartment, there is both fragility and tremendous personal strength in watching her make up her bed on the floor and talk herself through how she is going to be okay. The scene is a mirror of the same ritual many young adults go through when they leave home for their first apartment or dorm room, and yet Kasey’s journey to this place has been so different; she is not leaving home on her way to college or independence, but finding home after a long and treacherous journey alone.
Have the “stars” of the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We shared the finished film with Roque, Kasey, Anthony, and Maria before we screened for almost anyone else. There were some particularly vulnerable moments they had shared with us and it was nerve-wracking for us as filmmakers; all the decisions we had made in the edit room were on display for the very people for whom these decisions mattered the most. It was an emotional night, and ultimately we were honored at how they felt their stories had been captured compassionately. We were also very moved by their deep empathy and support for each other’s stories. They have each been able to travel with the film, and watching Roque, Kasey, Anthony, and Maria find their voices in talking directly to audiences about their experiences has been deeply moving.
Were there any surprising revelations for you while making The Homestretch?
Spending time with the youth who are facing these crisis situations taught us just how incredibly stressful and chaotic it is for them to make it through each day. It was not just about a constant search for where to sleep or where they could obtain shelter. It was a moment to moment struggle asking the questions, “How can I keep going to school? Where can I study? How can I get school supplies? How can I keep a few minutes on my cellphone – their only source of communication and often safety.” (Remember there are no pay phones anywhere anymore and a cellphone is a lifeline for these kids.)
We were also continually surprised how deep the negative stereotypes of homeless youth are entrenched in society. The image of a strung-out runaway sleeping under the bridge and panhandling for money on the street is extremely limiting and judgmental of these youth in crisis. And it is deeply harmful to the hundreds of thousands of youth who are working hard to make a future against the odds. The implication is that homeless youth are “bad kids” who “chose” this life, when the reality is that so many homeless youth are fierce survivors, fleeing abuse and neglect, facing really complex issues, and still fighting to stay in school and make a better life for themselves.
We also learned that there is another stereotype that can be equally harmful: the “Homeless to Harvard” parable that the media loves, of a homeless youth who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and gets a full ride at an Ivy League college. This kind of Cinderella story is out of reach to the vast majority homeless youth, who struggle to keep up in school without the basic support of a home and stable adult. The two extremes represented in these stereotypes are such a small percentage of the homeless youth we met.
Also, we learned how important it was for these kids to maintain a community of friends and adults who support them so they don’t become isolated and face tremendous depression. That’s why school becomes a replacement for home. Or why an emergency shelter or transitional home is way more than a place to lay your head at night. These places can become safety, community, and hope. They can be the touchstone for a young person to jump off from to make an important, courageous next step.
After people watch this film, they may likely want to know how they can help with teen homelessness in their own communities. Do you have first step suggestions for viewers who want to become active?
Because schools are often on the front lines of this crisis, teachers and counselors are often the first person to recognize when a kid is in crisis. We hope that audiences will get to know the homeless liaison in their school district and ask what needs they have to help support homeless students. We also hope that people will investigate what resources are available in their own communities to help kids in crisis and whether these resources need more support. While filming, we learned that the single most important thing that helps these young people is whether they have a strong consistent adult in their life: a teacher, mentor, foster parent, or friend. So we are hoping more people will get involved in a young person’s life and help them build the life skills they need for an independent future.
What are your three favorite films?
Such a difficult question! Three of Anne’s favorite films are Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, and Frederick Wiseman’s documentary High School. Kirsten’s three favorite films are Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, Elephant by Gus Van Sant (it’s a narrative based on a true story), and Fruitvale Station.
What projects are you working on or planning to work on next?
We will remain with The Homestretch Impact Campaign for the next year and are developing several next projects, including The Girl with the Rivet Gun, an animated documentary project about Rosie the Riveter. We are also researching several projects revolving around youth and education.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Search out and tell the stories that really move you personally, and have patience for the process. Sometimes, the story that opens to you is very different than the one you set out to find. Listen for the truth. Ask more questions than you answer. Trust your own sense of curiosity.