Twenty years ago one of the greatest documentaries ever made, Hoop Dreams, premiered. Hoop Dreams told the story of two Chicago high school basketball players hoping to take their talents to college and then to the pros, all while fighting not just the long odds of the sports world, but also poverty, crime, and unstable family situations. A new documentary titled The Homestretch follows three Chicago high school teenagers dreaming not of the NBA but of simply having someplace to call home. Two to three thousand homeless youth sleep on the streets of Chicago each night, just a fraction of the estimated 1.6 million homeless youth across the United States. Where Hoop Dreams put a face on the reality of how American athletics offers a slim chance to those few with the necessary skills and determination, The Homestretch puts a face on the reality of teen homelessness often “hidden” in plain sight, sometimes silently sitting in high school classrooms unsuspected by classmates and teachers. The Homestretch is a story of poverty, violence, loneliness, and pain, but it is also a story of courage, perseverance, compassion, and hope that may not offer the high-profile thrills of basketball glory, but may raise public consciousness of a generation we’re losing a little more each day.
Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly spent 4 years filming, directing, and producing The Homestretch. The two women co-founded Spargel Productions in 2002 and have dedicated themselves to long-form documentaries spotlighting aspects of American life lost in the shadows. The three young people they spotlight in The Homestretch not only represent the millions like them, but also face many of the unique problems facing homeless youth. Roque, a shy, Latino high school senior essentially abandoned by his parents after their divorce, lives in his teacher’s basement and aspires to go to college, but faces the challenge of being an undocumented immigrant. Anthony, a smooth-talking African-American who fled an abusive father, dreams of getting his GED, earning a steady job, owning his own apartment, and winning legal custody of his young son. Finally, Kasey, a charismatic young African-American woman who chose living on the streets over living with a mother that condemned her sexual orientation, wants to graduate high school, go to college, and live a better life in a home she can call her own. “Is this the life I’m going to live for the rest of my life?” Kasey wonders early on in The Homestretch as she ponders her situation. de Mare and Kelly quickly make you care deeply about the answer not just for these three, but for every homeless youth.
What strikes you most about these young people is their fierce intelligence yearning for an outlet. Anthony performs before the cameras a poem titled “Promised a Casket,” but later shows a multimedia piece he composed for his young son. Kasey proudly holds up a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello and praises Iago for his skills as a trickster, as someone who survives (like her) on her wits. Similarly, Roque finds inspiration in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, later playing the title role in a school production and investing deep personal feeling in the character’s lines drawn from their shared betrayal by their parents. de Mare, an award-winning playwright herself, and Kelly, an arts educator and the director and co-creator of “CPS Shakespeare,” a highly-acclaimed program that works with Chicago public high school students at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, make a powerful argument here not just for the humanities in education, but also for the surprising, yet enduring relevance of a 450-year-old playwright in the lives of these troubled young people. When Roque soliloquizes “To be or not to be,” you know that he’s asked that life-or-death question himself more than once.
What strikes you secondmost is the efforts of groups and individuals to provide these homeless youth with some kind of home. The Chicago public schools system registers 19,000 students as homeless, or, as they officially put it, “Students in Temporary Living Situations.” Turning temporary living situations into permanent ones seems an uphill battle, but the Belfort House of Chicago’s Teen Living Program creates a kind of community of these young people where they can find the necessary stability to earn high school diploma and change the course of their destiny. The Night Ministry in Chicago offers the “Crib,” an overnight shelter for young people that provides a hot meal and a warm bed. Watching teens anxiously wait to hear their name called in the lottery for scarce beds at the “Crib” will knot your stomach, but watching many of those same teens celebrate everyone getting to stay on a cold Chicago night will have you cheering, too. As one staff member at the “Crib” explains, they may never truly eradicate youth homelessness, but sometimes it’s enough to stop it for just a few minutes.
Despite the efforts of these groups and individuals, the homeless youth struggle to find a place to call their own. Roque insightfully identifies loneliness as “one of [his] worst enemies, one [he] wouldn’t wish on anyone.” Despite the depressing numbers of youth in this situation, each individual survives primarily on their own, as The Homestretch visually illustrates when it follows Roque walking city streets by himself or Kasey riding a subway train alone. Even Anthony’s larger-than-life personality is dwarfed by the long hallway he waits in before taking a test for his GED (image shown above). Homelessness is a huge monster with an insatiable appetite. Homeless youths face continual fears of physical and sexual abuse, theft of their belongings, and criminalization of the actions they need to do just to survive. Roque, Anthony, and Kasey live in the belly of the beast of homelessness every day, but The Homestretch shares their world with you for a unforgettable 80 minutes.
“Do you just let someone wither?” asks the teacher who first invites Roque to stay in her basement and later invites him to become part of her family. The Homestretch, like that teacher and the people of the Teen Living Program and The Night Ministry, refuses to let these young people wither. In a world where our greatest resource is people, allowing these young people to face the challenges of homelessness in addition to all the customary challenges of being a teenager is literally a crime against humanity. Without any preaching or judging, The Homestretch simply states the facts of the case of youth homelessness in America and calls several of its victims as witnesses. Will we let them wither? That’s a question each viewer will ask themselves (and hopefully act upon) for the rest of their lives.
[Image: Anthony waiting to take a test in pursuit of his GED in a scene from The Homestretch.]
[Many thanks to Spargel Productions and Kartemquin Films for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to The Homestretch, which will have its United States premiere at AFI DOCS in Washington, DC, on June 19, and will appear at the Human Rights Watch Festival at Lincoln Center in New York, NY, on June 20 and IFC Center on June 21. Information about further screenings can be seen here. The trailer to the film can be seen here.]