CHICAGO — In 2009, Kirsten Kelly discovered an almost secret population of Chicago Public Schools kids who couch surf, crash with friends and sleep under cars but never get called “homeless.”
It happened while Kelly worked with CPS students at a Chicago Shakespeare Theater acting program.
One of the students who she felt especially close to didn’t have a home. He was a hardworking kid who signed up for afterschool programs. He didn’t fit the homeless, gutter punk stereotype. And when she talked to the boy’s teacher she realized that there were kids like this all over Chicago … and no one was talking about them.
Anne De Mare spoke to DNAinfo Radio about how the filmmakers balanced their work and their desire to help the kids:
In fact, she learned that Chicago CPS students who don’t have a permanent place to live — and there’s more than 22,000 of them as of last year — get classified as the more hopeful “Students In Temporary Living Situations” rather than the scarier description — homeless.
So Kelly partnered with fellow filmmaker Anne de Mare and over the next five years they gained unprecedented access to CPS schools and programs aimed to help homeless school kids to produce “The Homestretch,” a documentary film they hope starts people talking about the city’s invisible youths.
The film, produced by Kartemquin Films, follows the lives of three Chicago kids — Kasey, Roque and Anthony — as they work to overcome so many obstacles and push toward living independent lives. The last days of its limited run at Siskel Film Center are Wednesday and Thursday night.
“The Homestretch” isn’t a cliche story about teenage gutter punks. None of the kids make a miraculous journey from homelessness to Harvard — and that makes all the difference.
“We wanted to document the 99 percent of kids in the homeless spectrum showing that there is a diverse set of reasons why kids become homeless and get the full journey with them over a long period of time,” de Mare said.
Kasey, a lesbian, was evicted from her home because of her sexual orientation.
Anthony, the product of foster homes and an adoption gone wrong, became homeless after being arrested for robbery as a teenager.
And Roque (pronounced Rocky) came to Chicago from Mexico as a child. He found himself living alone on the street after his mom and dad split up due to illegal immigration status.
While de Mare thought the documentary might follow homeless kids on their road to high school graduation, the film evolved into the story of what happens to homeless students when the safety net of school isn’t there any more.
“As a filmmaker you tell the story that opens up to you. … For these kids school represented home. It’s where they’re guaranteed an adult who cares about them. They have a stable meal. They know its warm. They know it’s safe. And also there’s this goal of a high school diploma that carries them,” she said.
“What we see in the film … is that they get to high school graduation and all the sudden there’s no immediate goal and the support the school represented falls away and they’re kind of left with, ‘What happens now?' The film really shifted … to be much more about that moment you’re trying to find your way in the world.”
Since “The Homestretch” premiered in Chicago last week the filmmakers have been overwhelmed by an outpouring of support from people who leave the theater asking, “What can we do to help?”
While that’s gratifying, de Mare said she was especially compelled by the response her three subjects had to the film, particularly Anthony, who told one crowd during a question-and-answer session after a screening that the film made him want to do better in life so he wouldn’t mess up the movie.
“Working with any subject in a documentary is a complicated process,” she said. “And I’ve heard them all say that the film has helped them communicate about their story and empower their lives.”
When the filmmakers first met Roque, who was the most shy about being homeless, they showed him a short clip of Kasey’s story and his response was to turn and say, “I thought I was the only one. I want to do this. I want to be in this movie.”
That was one of the moments that de Mare said taught her “something that I thought I learned before, that I thought I already knew but didn’t — you never really know a person’s story.
“These homeless youth don’t identify themselves as homeless. They go to tremendous lengths to hide it. They really are a hidden population and the resilience and strength and optimism of these youth is really inspiring,” she said. “And they inspired us all the way as in the making of this film.”
“The Homestretch” is showing at the Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and 6 and 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
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