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Witness

In This Room

How one homeless US family, trapped by diminished economic opportunities, is navigating through the daily challenges.

Last updated: 13 Mar 2013 14:28
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Filmmakers: Tod Lending and Won Bae

The economic downturn that hit the US economy has left many families struggling. For those who were already living on the edge of economic security the impact of the downturn has been a devastating tipping point.

" The first day being in a homeless shelter, I couldn't imagine being there. And to actually being there I was just mad. Its like prison, you can't bring food up to your room, you can't talk to nobody ... it's just all wrong , its hard. "

- Lamont, a 17-year-old high school student

In This Room is a personal look at how one Chicago family, forced into living in a homeless shelter, is navigating through this turmoil.

We see this journey through Derrell Gray, a father of four, trying to find a job and restore his family's dignity.

He says: "We became homeless when we were evicted from our apartment, the sheriff knocks on the door on the day, and I am very grateful that it was not as traumatic as evictions can be. Not one piece of our belonging was out out on the street. As man and as a father, as a husband to have to say to my wife: We now have nowhere to live."

We will also go through this experience with 17-year-old Lamont, who is striving to be seen as just another kid in high school despite his family's homelessness.

"I really don't know how we ended up here, the sheriff came to our apartment and we had to pack our bags and leave. The first day being in a homeless shelter, I couldn't imagine being there. And to actually being there I was just mad. It's like prison, you can't bring food up to your room, you can't talk to nobody ... it's just all wrong, its hard," Lamont says.

Moreover, we look at the issue of homelessness and evictions from the perspective of young Malachi, who is caught up in the chaos with little grasp of why this happening to the people he loves.

He says: "Sometimes I just feel uncomfortable like a whole world full of people, but I feel safe here because there is no shooting, nothing. Where I used to live was a sad place with bad things going all around ... like shooting, then we came to this place, the shelter."

Filmmakers view:

By Tod Lending

The statistics on the number of children in school who are homeless are stark and unsettling. Having a home and a family and enjoying the promise of security and opportunity are central to the American Dream.

But for hundreds of thousands of kids in America’s schools that dream is being denied them.

In Chicago alone there are 16,000 homeless students in the school system. There are organisations supporting these kids and their families. They struggle to find solutions, both in the immediate and for the long term but this tragedy has no easy or quick solution. 

What causes someone to be homeless? Is it strictly economic or are there different more insolvable reasons? One can make generalisations about the systemic reasons for why so many are homeless.

There is the economic anaemia that is still dragging down hopes for economic prospects for so many. There is the vise grip of dwindling affordable housing in large urban centres and then there is troubling reality that some families simply lack the skills to govern their own lives successfully.

While each is a cause, in none of these is there an obvious answer. The line between these different causes is porous and mucky. A swampland. It lacks clarity and more often than not it is nearly impossible to navigate successfully. 

To tell a story about homeless students in Chicago we selected the Gray family because they represented a different kind of homeless family. As with so many, they are the face of the “new” homeless who are trapped by diminished economic opportunities. 

Derrell Gray, an associate pastor, father and patriarch of his family, is very articulate and educated. In 2008, he lost his job at cable television operator as a result of the economic downturn and had been unemployed ever since.

His search for work led him only to minimum wage jobs, which are far too little to support his family and he feels will deny him the opportunity to find more substantial employment.

For one year, at least, after losing his job Derrell collected unemployment benefits. For the past year he and his family have lived in public housing and collected public assistance money.

What all this searching means for his family however, for his wife and his children, is something else. With no job, Derrell, his wife and their four children all share a single room.

There is no privacy, there is no room for anyone to establish or impose their own personality in this space. There is no socialising, no space to relax or unwind or simply just be alone.

This coupled with the constant pressure to find someplace else, as they are limited to being in this family shelter for just a few months, is a strain that presents itself in very different ways from Derrell as the family leader, to Lamont facing all the challenges of being a teenager and being homeless, all the way down to Malachi who is just now starting school and seeing more of the successful reality of his peers.

Won Bae, my co-producer/editor worked for months to delve into Lamont’s and Malachi’s experience of being homeless. Most of this was captured through conversations and scenes of them at school and in the shelter. We explored their thoughts and feelings about being homeless, making friends at school without revealing their living situation.

We interviewed their teachers, principals and counsellors. It was very challenging to get Lamont and Malachi to open up about their deep feelings and we wanted to be careful not to push them into emotional places where they were not ready to go. 

In the end, our story became one that was focused on several issues of homelessness. We looked at how being homeless impacts a student’s education, what it is like for a family to live in a homeless shelter for an extended period time, how homelessness affects relations between family members and we also attempted to break the stereotype of who the homeless are by focusing on a high functioning family that is homeless more for economic reasons than anything else.

This is not a film about homelessness but a story about those caught up in the powerlessness of circumstances they cannot control.

Click here  for more Witness films.

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Al Jazeera
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