With homelessness already at crisis levels in California before the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to throw thousands more on the streets, Don Hardy, Camille Servan-Schreiber and Shawn Dailey were already looking at how social safety net had frayed to the point in which a walk outside any door in the state would reveal people living in inescapable poverty all around. As “The Way Home,” their new web series starts out, this hardly happened overnight as the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s reduced funding across the boards for programs that would help people stay afloat in tough times and the increasing costs of housing have gone unabated in major cities, creating a perfect storm of conditions for those in the working class, veterans and others unable to work to suddenly find themselves without a roof over their heads.
Although “The Way Home” profiles a number of individuals who have had their lives upended in such a way and admirably found ways to survive when what resources are available remain in short supply, it also turns a spotlight on the organizations valiantly stepping into the breach to not only get more people into affordable housing but identify root problems that could change attitudes towards homelessness and initiate large-scale changes in how cities serve its unhoused citizens. Illustrating how the construction of affordable housing has decreased by roughly 70 percent since the 1980s and by the 1990s, more and more older Americans were left high and dry by a reduction in retirement benefits and rising health care costs, the series conveys a situation that has been so often misrepresented as an issue of personal responsibility being in actuality a result of systemic failures that on their own would be devastating enough but have combined into a true catastrophe.
With production on season two already well underway, the trio of filmmakers spoke about the importance of getting season one out to the public now, recently debuting on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play, and putting a face on such a large-scale issue.
Don Hardy: Camille and I live here in Northern California and we are confronted with homelessness every day and we were independently we were thinking about how could we cover a story about this, giving a personality and a humanity to the people who are out there on the streets. Right about that time, I was approached by Kaiser Permanente, a health care provider here in the U.S. and they were thinking about the same thing, so they invited me and maybe a few other documentary filmmakers to just talk about putting together something about an issue that mattered to them. It happened to matter to us, so once we worked out all the legal wrangling and the editorial control, we set off to make this.
When it’s a national issue, how local did you want to make it to California?
Camille Servan-Schreiber: One of the things we realized in working on the series is that one in five homeless people in the U.S. is actually in California, so the goal was not to have it be local, but we thought that because the problem is so much more acute in California, looking at the origins and the causes of the problem and also at the solutions – what are the ways in which organizations have been working in California to tackle the problem because of its magnitude, learning from this would be helpful for the entire nation.
I love that it’s solution-based and identifies homelessness as a systemic issue versus an individual issue, but that can be really hard to present on screen in an effective way. Was it a challenge?
Shawn Dailey: The Bakersfield episode is a good example. When Camille and I went out to Bakersfield, we went there to meet with the housing officials there and we met a gentleman named Lynn Edlund, who’s featured in the episode and his case worker [Denise Brock], a great person doing great work who we didn’t even know we were going to meet that day. [Denise] came to do the meeting with him because he was a bit shy and didn’t really know us. Her and I started talking and she had been sober for many years and I’m sober and we started talking about that and started talking about recovery and how it affects homeless people. She told me Lynn’s story and her and Lynn actually knew each other while they were experiencing homelessness, and when we saw the personal connection that those two had, we [knew] we’re here to talk about policy and why this is happening, but showing this personal connection is the most important part of this. So as we went through policy people and [seeing] people doing the solution-based work, you start to meet the folks that are involved and [learn] their stories. Everyone comes from somewhere and the more you start breaking into it, you start to see where all this really comes from and what the real problems are.
Don Hardy: We’ve learned over the years that documentaries have a mind of their own and what you think the story is going into it, you try to do your research and make your best guesses at what you’re going to see, but then you get out there and actually start doing the work. With this one in particular because the issue of homelessness is so vast, we just had to jump in. The first piece we did was actually the second episode of the series where we found that shared living situation that this organization, Bay Area Community Services, [which] on the front lines getting people off the streets, had moved a group of people into, so that was where we first started and as we started hearing those stories, the idea hit us that we really wanted to show the faces of folks [like portraits]. That becomes a style throughout all of the episodes where we get up close and show these faces and hear these stories from people who aren’t very different from you and I. The path to homelessness starts with losing your job, your rent going up, all of these issues that a lot of us are now contemplating because of COVID [wondering if] our safety net as secure as we once thought it was. And if this year has taught us anything, we’re all hanging by a thread, so these folks that we’ve met over the past half-year of making this have told us so many of these stories.
Did you have firm ideas in mind for each episode from the start?
Don Hardy: Yeah, we went out in a pretty pointed fashion, but leaving room to find something different, if that is what ended up presenting itself. I used to be in television news many years ago and there was a term we called “producer fantasia,” this idea of the story when you’re in the newsroom or you’re in that morning meeting, thinking about it, but when you go out there, it’s something different. We were fortunate to have that flexibility to follow the stories where they went. I don’t remember which one of us in our producer meeting said, “Well, where did the term homeless really come into our vocabulary?” But that was our idea with episode one was to really go back into those first glimpses of people on our streets and come to find out, it’s been a little more than 40 years that we’ve really been using that term. We did want to have pieces focusing on different areas of California because it is such a big state and the way homelessness is handled in Oakland is different from Los Angeles and Los Angeles is different than Bakersfield. And in season two, we have Sacramento in there, so we’re trying to show for areas large and small how people are tackling this problem and what kind of solutions they’re coming up with.
Shawn Dailey: Yeah, and how many different people it takes to tackle a problem like this. All these different organizations all do something a little different and it really takes a village to get it where it’s at. And it’s nowhere near where it needs to be.
Camille Servan-Schreiber: Homelessness feels like it’s been an urgent problem for a long time now, so there isn’t a particular urgency that we felt. [The episodes] were ready to be out and be seen in the world. But we do worry a lot and the people we have been interviewing and talking to about this issue do worry a lot about what is about to happen. Many, many more people who are living on the brink of homelessness, they are barely hanging onto their homes and what this pandemic is going to do with people with back rent and they need to pay it and don’t have it. That’s a huge concern in the community.
Don Hardy: We found a way to just keep documenting what is going on in the homeless community and working with a lot of the frontline workers, doing Zoom interviews like we’re doing right here to just capture what was happening in real time, so really that’s the arc of season two is all the COVID outbreak.
Camille Servan-Schreiber: It’s been really amazing to get to know more people that work in the field, see how hard they work and how effective a lot of the policies and the programs are. What’s impressive is that people have been housed at much-higher rates than they ever have been. The problem is there are more and more people falling into homelessness, so it’s hard to catch up.
Don Hardy: It’s very heartening to see so many organizations out there [when] nobody ever has the funding they need, [or] all the tools or the staff that they need, but a lot of people are out there trying to make a difference in getting people off the streets. Yes, more people are falling into homelessness, and that is a systemic problem that we really need to look at. Hopefully as things change next year, these pieces come out and people watch them and think about them and their place in all of this and just have a little more kindness to the folks we see on the streets. That’ll be a start and then a lot of it is done one-to-one, but we do need the support of the government, state and federal government to really step up.