A documentary about homeless youth is
spotlighting an otherwise quiet epidemic.
Movie director Rotimi Rainwater knows what it’s like to live on the streets – his mother lost their home after a bout with cancer undermined their family’s income. Rainwater’s film Sugar (2013) dramatized America’s homeless youth culture and was inspired by the director’s real life experiences. While promoting that film, the director was routinely buttonholed by real homeless teens asking for his help, and the director was quick to realize just how few public resources were available to minors living on America’s streets.
Now, Rainwater is bringing an important new documentary about homeless youth to the national stage. Lost in America illuminates a particular segment of the country’s homeless population that routinely falls through the cracks in the larger discussion about poverty and affordable housing. Rainwater and producer Mike C. Manning talked to The Contributor by phone ahead of the May Nashville Film Festival.
“I spent nine and a half months experiencing homelessness,” Rotimi says. “At that time I didn’t want to talk about it because of the stigma that comes with it.” Making Sugar helped the director open up about his experiences, and Rotimi’s firsthand understanding of life on the streets underlines every frame of Lost in America with an unspoken authenticity.
“Rotimi has worked his way out of homelessness, so he knows what the situation really is like, but he’s also an example of hope and of survival for these kids,” Manning says.
We meet a lot of those kids in Rainwater’s film, which offers profiles of homeless youths in cities all across the country.
“I didn’t want to tell a story about a few kids in one city,” he says. “I wanted to make a film that addressed youth homelessness on a national level. We interviewed 30 youth in 15 cities, along with more than 50 state and local organizations, and members of Congress and the senate.”
This big picture, crusading-filmmaker-goes-to-Washington strategy echoes Michael Moore’s best efforts, but even when Rainwater is in front of the camera, the focus remains on his subjects.
Conner and Makayla are 19 year olds living in San Francisco. They’re lucky to have one another — as surviving in the urban environment can be a dicey prospect. Makayla's experiences highlight some of the special hazards that young people face when they’re homeless.
“If it wasn’t for him there’s no way I could be out here,” she says of Connor. “I’m young and small and a lot of people out here go after young people. So there’s no way I could be out on the streets — especially in this city — by myself. I’d probably be dead if I was.”
Another young woman named Cecil, 21, has been homeless since 15. She’s currently in Seattle, Washington, and demonstrates how she improvises a shelter out of a tarp and a sleeping bag while dining on a cold can of baked beans. She was raped by her father when she was only 4 years old. Cecil tells Rainwater that if she’d had a loving supportive home life, she’d have never ended up on the street. “This is how it ended up. I feel like I’m making the best out of it,” she says.
After introducing us to a handful of homeless young people, Rainwater offers an illuminating history lesson that traces the roots of contemporary homelessness back to the Reagan era, when the federal budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion in 1988.
Overall, homelessness in America is a crisis situation, but that situation for minors on the street is compounded by a startling lack of resources and assistance. Rainwater points out that there are 5,000 animal shelters in the United States but less than 400 shelters for homeless young people. This fragile infrastructure is further hindered by misconceptions about why kids end up homeless, and the real heavy lifting in Lost in America is Rainwater’s careful, thorough examinations of issues like the failures of the foster care system, the dangers of domestic sex trafficking and the homophobia that often drives LGBT youth from their families and their homes.
Lost in America offers a simultaneously deft and delicate take on complex and often ugly subjects. It deserves a spot alongside timeless homelessness documentaries like Dark Days (2000) and Street Wise (1984), and it’s required viewing for fans of powerful social documentaries.