"The Homestretch," the newest documentary from Kartemquin Films ("Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters"), tells the stories of three homeless young people in Chicago. And all three rely on help and support from a network of caretakers including FYSB grantee The Night Ministry, whose program is a featured location in the film.
As "The Homestretch" makes its debut on the PBS series "Independent Lens," the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth spoke with staff members from The Night Ministry about why they got involved in the first place, and how to protect staff and clients’ best interests with cameras rolling.
NCFY: How did this journey begin for The Night Ministry? Were you looking for ways to make a movie of your work?
Paul W. Hamann (President & CEO): The film was not our idea. The filmmakers [Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly] came to us with the initial idea, the subject matter, the concept, and had done a lot of research around the concerns of homeless youth before they approached us.
We first met them when [overnight shelter] The Crib first opened, in 2011. They’d heard about the program from other providers. Everyone told them, “You have to go check out this new program.”
Tedd Peso (Government Relations Manager): Filming began in the winter of 2012, at end of The Crib’s first pilot program. They also filmed our youth outreach team, and really became a part of the work we were doing. As Chicago was reformatting its homeless plan, they were in our meetings and filmed us working on that. They followed young people on advocacy trips to Springfield. Everyone [on staff] became pretty familiar with what they were doing. They became part of the fabric of the program.
NCFY: How can you build that kind of trust with an outside filmmaker?
Peso: We researched them. We knew Kristen had experience working with young people through the [Chicago Public Schools] Shakespeare program [that produces Shakespeare plays with public high school students]. A lot of it was the aura they gave off. And because it was a long-term project, it was different than a journalist going in and looking for a sound bite. This was something they really researched and prepared for.
Hamann: It was really a relationship. We knew we were dealing with professionals, and they were most respectful of the clients, staff and their stories. And if the staff had ever said so, we would have stopped filming immediately.
NCFY: How did you protect your staff and youth from feeling scrutinized or uncomfortable while the cameras were rolling?
Stacy Massey (Media Relations and Communications Coordinator): We put up a lot of boundaries up front, for journalists and filmmakers. We make it clear that, if at any point in the process we have to stop or anyone revokes their consent, filming has to stop. As long as you set up those ground rules at the outset, people are quite respectful.
You only choose subjects who are over 18, and they have to give their consent. We have processes on our end, like signed releases, and telling kids [during group scenes], “If you’re comfortable being on camera, be on this side of the room.” And we empower them to stand up for themselves if they’re not okay with anything. They don’t always realize they have that option to say, “Please stop filming me.”
We’re really frank with filmmakers. We explain that we work with a vulnerable position and we don’t want to put them in an even more vulnerable position. This is a safe space for people without a lot of safe spaces. And [De Mare and Kelly] understood that, as much as their craft is documentary realism, it’s also about building relationships.
Hamann: We were always asking, what is the purpose of this? Is the purpose in line with our mission? Are they going to respect confidentiality, and do so in a way that won’t interfere with service delivery?
We get a lot of calls from university students and most of them we have to say no to. The ultimate goal isn’t about the clients, it’s about their project.
NCFY: How do you expect that this film will affect your program or the field at large?
Hamann: We know it’s going to be significant but we don’t know how yet. The timing of it couldn’t be better, as the needs of homeless youth become a bigger and bigger issue. [We need] to get across the point that homeless youth take on a variety of forms. There are a lot of reasons they become homeless. And this movie really conveys that.
Peso: In Illinois we have a new budget that’s been proposed that would cut homeless funding by 55 percent. At a state level, ["The Homestretch"] comes at a perfect time for people to understand the impact this cut would have on the young people who are living these issues.
And of course, [the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness] wants to end youth homelessness by 2020, and this film says a lot about the need for funding front-line youth workers in achieving that goal.