In September, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency in response to Los Angeles’ surging homelessness and pledged $100 million to combat it. Though it's not yet clear how the money will be spent, it might do the administration some good to look to members of L.A.’s film and theater communities — who've worked to understand and tackle the dilemma — for inspiration.
For filmmaker Rotimi Rainwater, one way to combat homelessness is to document it. The subject is personal for Rainwater; at age 19, he spent nine months living on the streets of Orlando, an experience he chronicled in his 2013 documentary Sugar. Now the 44-year-old filmmaker is turning the camera outward for his newest project, Lost in America, which the Huffington Post describes as “unique in the large-scale coverage it provides to this nationwide epidemic.”
The film tells the stories of kids like Caleb, who was beaten and harassed for being gay and ran away to escape the abuse; Cecil, who was raped by her father when she was 5; Fez, who fled the foster care system in Mexico and is trying to get back home; and Atheana, whose mother poisoned her and forced her to undergo an exorcism.
Through these and other stories, Rainwater hopes to draw more attention to the tens of thousands of youths — an estimated 9,000 of them in L.A. — who find themselves homeless every year.
“When I screened [Sugar] for Congress and for youths across the country, I realized how big the issue was on a national level — and saw just how little was being done about it,” Rainwater says. “A lack of national support is the biggest factor for why so many youth are on the streets. And unfortunately, in Los Angeles the need is far greater than the resources.”
Rainwater says there are two major misconceptions about youth homelessness: First, that kids are on the streets by choice. “Most aren’t,” he says. Second, that there are plenty of places for these kids to stay. “It is reported in every city in America that shelters and organizations have to turn away children every night because of lack of funding and lack of beds.”
One of Lost in America’s producers, Vinny Chhibber, is working at the local level to grow the support system for homeless youth. Along with actors Karla Mosley (The Bold and the Beautiful) and Arjun Gupta (Nurse Jackie), Chhibber founded Ammunition Theatre Company, which not only shares the stories of L.A.’s homeless teens through theatrical performances but also serves as a partner to My Friend’s Place, a youth homelessness organization. Ammo, as the troupe is called by its members, contributes to My Friend's Place via the organization's Hollywood Arts program, which provides arts education and funding to young Angelenos.
“Many of the people we work with through My Friend’s Place are trauma survivors,” Mosley says. “Some youth have been abandoned by those they love the most, and many struggle with depression and substance abuse. L.A., and particularly Hollywood, is a city built on fantasy. Many youth come here to escape the past.”
Gupta says he believes that the battle against homelessness is best waged with the assistance of groups like My Friend's Place. “On a community level, organizations like My Friend's Place must be supported monetarily, through clothing donations and donations of time,” he says. “And on an individual level, we can all begin to see homeless people as people — to treat them with the same dignity and respect that we give to our friends and neighbors.”
This focus on the individual also guides Speak Up, a program from the Corporation for Supportive Housing, in which formerly homeless Angelenos are partnered with public speaking coaches to advocate for L.A.’s homeless community. Over the past two years, Jason Friedman, a founder of the storytelling group Popcorn and a volunteer with Speak Up, has mentored four people who were transitioning from life on the streets.
“Each person had a very different path that led them to becoming homeless,” Friedman says. “This past year one of my mentees was an immigrant from Mexico who had a few bouts of homelessness during his journey to citizenship. My other mentee was homeless for seven years as a result of a mental illness. Her life got back on track once she became properly medicated. She is now an amazing advocate in the community helping the homeless find permanent housing.”
Friedman points out that homeless people need more than just a hot meal and a place to sleep. “This is where the L.A. artistic community can play a huge role,” he says. “The homeless need help finding the beauty in this world and reminders that there are good people out there that are willing to help them.”