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Week of 2.2.07

Producer's Notebook: Finding Footie
By NOW Field Producer Alexandra Dean

NOW Field Producer Alexandra Dean
NOW Field Producer Alexandra Dean
Edward Doyle, known to all as "Footie," is the hero of our story. In our program "Home at Last" we follow him from his life on the street until he moves into a comfortable new apartment given to him by a program called Pathways. Their radical idea is that you can solve long-term homelessness by giving homeless men and women their own apartment. You can judge whether or not it works just by watching Footie's face. He expresses every emotion in his eyes and his gestures, from his fear and disbelief at the notion that he'd get a room, no strings attached, to his utter joy when he walks through the door. His face tells the whole story.

To understand why Footie was such a perfect character for us, you have to understand a little bit about him. Footie spends most of his time walking, but that much is clear from his nickname, and he's been homeless for over a decade. He's bashful, sweet, and sometimes chatty. When he's at home he likes listening to Marvin Gaye, or reading comics, or watching "MacGyver" reruns on TV.

That's what Footie likes. What he hates is violence. He hates violence so much that he doesn't like being near anything sharp. Footie avoids fights and gets nervous when anyone raises their voice. He was put into a foster home, but got into trouble when some local kids pelted him with eggs, and he tried to fight back. But there are other reasons for his aversion. Footie says he witnessed his father stab his home attendant to death with a butter knife when he was a child. His brother later murdered a nurse at Montefiore hospital and threw her down an elevator shaft. We were so shocked by these stories that we couldn't quite believe they were true, so we looked them up. We could find nothing on Footie's father, but we found several articles confirming the brother's gruesome attack.

When he grew older, Footie says alcohol allowed him to "forget" those painful memories, but soon he found himself on the street without an exact idea of how he got there. To erase what memories still remained, he would walk from the Bronx to the Brooklyn Bridge and back again, all the while counting backwards. He slept behind the bleachers next to a baseball diamond in Crotona Park, and in his nightmares he imagined restless teenagers were trying to drown him in a nearby lake.

You might think he'd be catatonic, or at least hostile to strangers who push camera equipment in his face, but not at all. In fact, Footie has a tremendous gift: he's not afraid of the camera. With Footie in front of the lens, we knew we could help our viewers feel what homeless people must feel every day.

With Footie in front of the lens, we knew we could help our viewers feel what homeless people must feel every day.
That was our luck. But there were some initial problems: For one, Footie runs away when he's nervous, and he ran away right after his first interview with Pathways. We chased him around the Bronx for hours, finally locating him at a gas station near Hunt's Point. By that time he'd had a few drinks, and was completely disoriented.

After that episode I was a little frightened for Footie. I didn't know if he could make it in an apartment by himself. The folks from Pathways were unfazed, though, and they put him straight into temporary housing that very night. We went to visit him there a week later, and already he seemed changed. I felt that now he had a place to put away his stuff, he was less guarded, less likely to flip out and go running. By the time Pathways had found him a new apartment of his own, Footie was pretty much transformed. He started to smile more often, and his caseworkers reported that his health was improving. We went back to Footie's place when he got his new furniture and again for his first meeting with Pathways support staff. He never remembered our names, which was hard because we had grown quite fond of him, but every time he was a little less reluctant to talk to us.

On our last day of shooting we went back to Footie's apartment and filmed him decorating his living room wall. He taped colorful squares of paper in a neat line, certificates of attendance from his alcohol program, and worksheets from therapy, like a string of flags across his living room. Then he pointed out one worksheet with no words across it, only drawings of people's faces contorted into various exaggerated emotions.

"This is the paper I use to explain how I'm feeling," Footie said. "I point to the paper and find the face. Often I am bored. But sometimes I'm happy." "How are you feeling now?" we asked Footie. He pointed to a face with a half-smile and wide eyes, "hopeful," he said. He paused, and then added, "Hopeful that I won't be ashamed of myself anymore."

Other Producer's Notebooks:

» A window into the lives of deploying soldiers

» Reinventing New Orleans' Schools

» Democracy in the Deep South