Homelessness & Movies

How Movies Have Handled the Issue of Homelessness

How Movies Have Handled the Issue of Homelessness

By Frankie Wallace.

In many cities across the U.S. and around the world, downtrodden individuals standing on a street corner and holding a cardboard sign are a common sight. The signs carry different words, but the underlying message is clear: “I am homeless and need help.” While some motorists give money or food freely to those holding a sign, others avert their eyes or even yell at them to get a job, calling them scam artists, junkies, or worse.

The stigma of homelessness is an intrinsic part of modern culture, and one of the biggest factors driving that stigma is a lack of understanding. Over the years, filmmakers have done their part to shed light on the issue of homelessness, portraying those living on the streets as human beings rather than drug-addicted scammers, at least for the most part. The ultimate intention of these films is likely to simply tell a rich story of characters who struggle with daily life, but they also bring attention to a real-world issue that sparks a variety of emotions.



Homelessness and Mental Illness

In film depictions of mental illness, homelessness and mental illness often go hand in hand. Many within the homeless population struggle with mental illness, which can be both a product and result of homelessness. For example, a lack of adequate housing causes stress and isolation, which negatively impacts one’s mental state. Many homeless individuals living with mental illness fall into a cycle of poverty and addiction, as they often self-medicate. That cycle can be hard to break, and it’s estimated that about 144,000 homeless individuals in the U.S. are living with some type of mental illness.

But it’s important to note that those numbers only represent a portion of the homeless population. The majority of America’s homeless are not mentally ill, and their living situation stems from a variety of factors that may include loss of steady employment, domestic violence, and lack of affordable housing in a given area.

Many are victims of some kind of trauma or spent much of their youth in the foster care system. In fact, studies show that between 40% and 50% of foster youth become homeless in the 18 months following emancipation, many ending up chronically homeless. However, that large section of the homeless population is virtually ignored in mainstream films.

An individual is considered chronically homeless when he or she has experienced homelessness for a duration of at least a year. The chronically homeless are those most at risk of never getting off the streets and of developing complex and long-term health conditions.

Recently, researchers have found a direct correlation between income and mental health, determining that those earning higher incomes tend to have better mental health than those living in poverty. Low-income and impoverished individuals are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. When compounded with homelessness, either chronic or short-term, this can lead to a lifelong struggle.

How the Film Industry Handles Homelessness

For many people with permanent housing and stable jobs, the idea of homelessness is far removed from daily life, but the reality is far more complex. As of 2016, 564,708 people in the U.S. were considered homeless, and one-fourth of those individuals were children. Film portrayals of the homeless, however, typically focus on individuals rather than homeless families, with 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” standing out as a notable exception.

In the film, Will Smith stars as Chris Gardner, who is living on the streets of San Francisco with his young son, played by his real-life son Jaden Smith. Chris’ struggle to care for his child in the wake of overwhelming odds is the heart of the story, and the dynamics of their father-son relationship are touching. “The Pursuit of Happyness” does a remarkable job of bringing a human element to the issue of homelessness.

That humanity is also evident in Paul Bettany’s directorial debut, “Shelter,” released in 2014. The film follows the life of Hannah, a homeless heroin addict in New York City, played by Bettany’s wife and Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly. Her cardboard sign reads, “Used to be someone,” aptly illustrating her state of despair and hopelessness. Unfortunately, Connelly doesn’t really look the part, and her beauty and good complexion somewhat detracts viewers from fully investing in Hannah’s struggles. That’s not to say that homeless individuals can’t also be beautiful, but in general, a homeless life has adverse effects on the body as well as the mind.

Chronic Homelessness in Movies

Chronic homelessness, as discussed above, is a major source of hardship. This is at the crux of Miss Shepherd’s life story in the 2015 film “The Lady in the Van.” Miss Shepherd is a brash, older woman who one day parks her van (which doubles as her home) in the driveway of Alan Bennett, who lives in a posh London neighborhood.

There are many laws in the real world that effectively discriminate against the homeless, such as laws barring people from sleeping in vehicles. Even in states where it is generally legal to sleep in your vehicle, such as Florida, doing so carries some risk. In this movie, Alan’s acceptance of Miss Shepherd’s presence is a step in the right direction, though her stay lasts far longer than he expects.

She remains parked there for 15 years and, over time, develops an unlikely friendship with him. The film is based on a true story, and it touches on the stigma of homelessness in a profound way, as Alan’s neighbors are adamantly opposed to Miss Shepherd and her lifestyle. Miss Shepherd exhibits signs of mental illness and was even committed to an institution by her brother years before becoming homeless.

But homelessness isn’t only reserved for the poor and mentally ill, although theirs are the stories most typically seen on film. Along with “The Pursuit of Happyness,” in which the main character’s homelessness primarily stems from lack of stable employment, 2007’s “Into the Wild” shows another side of homelessness.

Directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, “Into the Wild” is the true story of a well-to-do man who chooses to live a transient life. After completing his studies at Emory University, Christopher sells all of his possessions, rids himself of his life savings, and hits the road. His ultimate destination is Alaska, but his adventures first take him to California and Mexico, where he hops trains, hitchhikes, and even travels via kayak for a time.

Homelessness as a choice may seem a far-fetched idea to many, but the reality is that Christopher’s story, while extreme, isn’t unique. As rent costs skyrocket in many cities and the job market remains saturated with overqualified applicants, more and more people are making the choice to live a more humble life.

In 2017, radio news reporter Kristin Hanes did just that, trading her $1650-a-month studio apartment in San Francisco for a tent and a Toyota Prius in order to save money and reduce her carbon footprint. Perhaps real-world stories like this will soon be made into movies, giving viewers even more insight into the many factors that can contribute to homelessness and bringing a human element to the rampant social issue.


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