New film puts a face on homelessness

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Last month, Richard Barber, a New York City-based CBS News editor and producer, made a trip to Rochester to document the city’s homeless. 

He filmed Patrick Braswell, a lead organizer of the Rochester Homeless Union, to spread awareness.

That film, titled “The Road We’re On,” premieres tonight on Facebook, as an event in the local union’s Winter Offensive, a 50-day period that extends from Thanksgiving until Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. 

Barber learned firsthand the plight of Rochester’s homeless, a population that union organizers say has doubled with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I knew in an abstract way that this kind of thing was happening and it was getting worse with COVID,” says Barber, who mostly works on “48 Hours” and volunteers for the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. “To see the faces and stories attached to it makes it much more vivid.”

In the short film, the audience follows Braswell, who once was homeless himself, checking in with people on the street and at shelters like the House of Mercy. It challenges the assumption that if the poor worked harder and acted better, they would be lifted out of poverty. Braswell says he felt that way once but has realized it is a misunderstanding. In the film, he says “these people aren’t what I was made to believe.”

COVID-19 has cast an even harsher light on the situation.

“The majority of people in the shelter system are people who lost their jobs, lost their apartments, (who) were out there, making ends meet,” Braswell says.

He works closely with Sabine Adler, an organizer at RHU and a graduate student at Ithaca College. Both are working to organize the ranks of the homeless. 

Their organization is closely aligned with the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement with local chapters. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, whose roots lie with King, was revived a couple of years ago. The National Union of the Homeless, which emerged in the 1980s, lay the foundation for this revival, experts say. Together with the Poor People’s Campaign, the union aims to show that the poor can be agents of change.

One of the strategies in New York is to change the narrative by changing the narrator, says Peter Kinoy, a filmmaker and member of the state’s PPC media team, like Barber.

“So that people don’t get the same old story that they’ve been told all the time, that they get told the new story by voices that they have not heard before, by people living it,” Kinoy says.

Braswell and Adler hope the film will demonstrate the union’s approach to developing leadership among those affected, engaging in political education and direct action. The Winter Offensive uses the period when most people think of giving and pay attention to the homeless.

“You really want to take the opportunity to change the narrative and really ask for change, not charity, to really challenge the conditions that are causing homelessness instead of (simply) trying to address the immediate need,” Adler says.

The main goal: to bring a voice to the impoverished. That aim is especially urgent in the city of Rochester, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

“The current way that we think about fixing poverty really fits in ‘Oh, just get them a job, just get them housing,’ that will fix it,” Adler says. “No, (the) homeless population is doubling. We’re going into another recession where this is just going to keep increasing and we have to stop thinking that you get someone a job, and everything is fixed. A lot of people who are homeless have jobs, are working, and so we’re really trying to change that misunderstanding around who is poor.”

Says Braswell: “Our country is capable of taking care of people. Our city is capable of taking care of people that they’ve completely overlooked.”

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S. has a shortage of 7 million rental homes that are available and affordable to renters at or below the poverty line. This group faces a shortage in every state and major metro, including the District of Columbia.

Roughly a year ago, 17 out of every 10,000 people were homeless, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports. In 2019, 567,715 people didn’t have a shelter. In New York, the number of homeless per 10,000 people topped 47. A total of 92,091 were homeless on any given night, the alliance found. More than 800 of them were in Monroe County. COVID-19 is expected to darken that picture considerably.

Photo credit: Rochester Homeless Union

In Rochester, Braswell is working on multiple levels, from organizing to helping the homeless with their daily struggles. “The Road We’re On,” is one way for him and others to put a face on the fight to live. The film is expected to be used by other PPC chapters as well.

Kinoy points to one of the slogans that emerged from homeless organizing: “Homeless not helpless.”

“You really have to see people as people and not as objects and that these are people who know how to survive and given half a chance, they can create solutions to their problems,” he says. “They are not helpless.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

Upcoming Winter Offensive events:

■ Dec. 11 at 7 p.m.: Rochester Homeless Union Presents: Winter Homeless Offensive “The Road We’re On” Short Film Screening and Discussion via livestream on Rochester Homeless Union Facebook Page and YouTube

■ Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.: Winter Homeless Offensive 2020 Homeless Memorial via livestream on Rochester Homeless Union Facebook Page and YouTube

■ Dec. 17 at 8 p.m.: Social Welfare Action Alliance: The Poor Organizing The Poor. Lessons from the National Union of the Homeless featuring Kristin Colangelo and Savina Martin; virtual event via socialwelfareactionalliance.org

■ Dec. 19 at 1 p.m.: Winter Homeless Offensive Right to Housing, No More Death in the Street: Car Caravan

■ Date TBA: Winter Homeless Offensive: Project of Survival Supply Donation Drive

■ Dec. 21: National Union of the Homeless Winter Offensive: Homeless Memorial Day

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