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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Documentary series puts a different, more humane spotlight on the homeless

Maurice Smith stopped by the Cannon Street Warming Center the other day around lunch, just as people began lining up for a brown-bag lunch: sandwiches, chips, a Jell-O dessert cup and a drink.

Smith, a documentary producer, and his videographer, D.W. Clark, were there to shoot footage for the third in a series of documentaries they are making about homelessness in Spokane.

On this trip, they were shooting something quite simple: faces.

Close-up. Stripped-down. Human faces, one after another.

When the film is finished, Smith told the group of men eating lunch, “We’ll do a documentary screening right here,” pointing to a shelter wall covered with a mural.

Smith’s lunchtime visit was part of a three-film effort he’s been working on since January 2019. A trilogy titled “My Road Leads Home,” Smith’s films operate as a kind of anti-“Curing Spokane” statement: They focus on the human reality of homelessness (not on drive-by terrors and disheveled street people); they call upon the community to understand the issue more deeply and broadly (as opposed to misunderstanding it); and they strive to build what Smith calls the “shalom,” or harmony, of the community (as opposed to fueling hostility toward suffering people).

Smith’s second film, “The Hidden Homeless,” was shown at the Spokane International Film Festival earlier this month. A fuller 75-minute cut will air in the future on Community-Minded Television.

If the project had a mission statement, it might be this: “How can we seek the shalom in our community? I want to do things that encourage and pursue the shalom – the wholeness – of our community,” Smith said.

“The Hidden Homeless” deals chiefly with family homelessness, and the way in which our statistics overlook the large number of people who have nowhere to live – sleeping on couches, doubling up in homes, in their cars. They don’t fit into the stereotypical vision of the homeless, but they are by far the largest group of homeless people in the region, Smith’s film makes clear.

Smith sought to quantify this. He sought unduplicated figures from shelters, the city and schools through the region. Under federal guidelines, homeless students include all those whose families don’t have a place of their own, even if they’re sleeping under someone’s roof.

In trying to arrive at an estimate, he calculated that every school student counted as homeless would have two siblings and 1.5 parents. He arrived at an estimated 11,541 homeless people in Spokane, on average, over the past three years.

That’s more than 10 times the city’s annual point-in-time count of just over 1,000, which tends to pick up mostly chronic street homeless people.

The higher school numbers aren’t surprising to those who have followed the issue in Spokane. But what Smith does in his film is depict the huge number of families who are homeless or on the edge of it as an “upstream reservoir” for street homelessness – children who are at risk of falling further through the cracks into a subterranean river of homelessness that flows through the community.

“There is an upstream reservoir somewhere that is feeding street homelessness,” he said. “That’s why we have to do a better job of asking upstream questions.”

‘Better stories’

Smith has a particular heart for the issue of family homelessness, and it’s not because he’s been involved in local organizations such as Feed Spokane or the Spokane Homeless Coalition. It comes from a place of personal experience. His family, for a few years, was one of the hidden homeless – living with others following a business bankruptcy.

A native of North Carolina, Smith went to divinity school before changing course and starting a financial services business in Spokane. But that business went under in 2000, and his home was foreclosed upon. He remembers the day the sheriff’s deputy came to make sure they were leaving.

“We lost our house, and had no place to go,” he said.

He and his wife lived with friends in Deer Park, and it disrupted the lives of his children as well. That was their experience for about five years, and “it completely changed the direction of our lives.”

Smith, meanwhile, was working as a pastor for a network of house churches and helping out at Truth Ministries shelter. It sparked something in him. He began working with, and helping to start, various organizations that help the homeless. He and others ran a home in West Central that provided regular meals in the front yard. That became Feed Spokane, which coordinates among restaurants, grocery stores and shelters to turn unused food into meals for people.

Smith recalls the first Feed Spokane pickup – it was after the Mother’s Day brunch at the Davenport Hotel. Forty men at the Truth Ministries shelter wound up with a meal of prime rib and prawns.

Smith left Feed Spokane in 2010 as he and his wife spent a few years helping with a family health crisis. Following that, he began working with the Spokane Homeless Coalition leadership team, where he began to feel the city needed a better understanding of the issue.

He eventually started River Run Media, a nonprofit. The first film portrayed the Homeless Connect event of January 2019.

“I had the idea that we need to tell better stories,” he said. “The whole goal is to change the optic, the narrative and the tone.”

‘This is the epidemic’

Early in the “The Hidden Homeless,” we hear the story of 8-year-old Rigby and his mother. They had been, at the time of the filming, living at St. Margaret’s Shelter.

In his interview, Rigby wears a Seahawks shirt. He says he likes to paint and draw. He speaks of his hopes that they can move into an apartment or a duplex. He speaks of his mother, whose struggles included domestic violence, with a fierce commitment.

“I want to protect my mom at all times,” he says, “because I love her.”

Watching Rigby – this boy whose life has the outward trappings of “normalcy” with such difficult undercurrents – you can’t help but feel the deep, difficult truth of Smith’s thesis: Homelessness is not what we see out there; it is something being experienced among us.

Our community harmony – its wholeness, its peace, its shalom – is wrapped up fully in whether we see each other in this problem, and how we respond to it.

Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, is quoted in the film saying that the hidden part of the problem is much larger than the visible one.

Most people think of a homeless guy pushing a shopping cart or lying on the sidewalk under an overpass, maybe struggling with addiction or mental illness, he said.

“The vast, overwhelming majority of our homeless are not that guy,” McCann said. “The vast, overwhelming majority of our homeless are families. They’re moms and dads with kids. … This is the epidemic of homelessness in our community.”

That’s the story Smith captures in “The Hidden Homeless.” The third film in the trilogy will be a close look at the operations of the warming center on Cannon Street, and how urgently the city needs such services.

Throughout, the films try to portray the humanity of homeless people – to reject the formulation in which they are seen as the other, and to encourage people to see them as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as us.

“They might be standing next to you,” Smith said, “and you wouldn’t know they’re struggling.”

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