Fort Smith, Arkansas will be in the camera's eye as the face of homelessness for a crew making a feature film on those living without a roof over their heads this November.
In Fort Smith, homeless people live outdoors year-round, some in makeshift camps near the Arkansas River or sleeping along northside streets with day shelters and food pantries. Homeless women and veterans are the focus of
an ongoing nationwide documentary effort on film coming soon. Some of the common factors of homelessness for women involve domestic violence and divorce, said California documentary filmmaker Robert Craig.
Craig said he knows Fort Smith is a destination for filming as part of "Americans With No Address," the documentary title, because of people who are not only experiencing homelessness in the River Valley but because organizations are addressing growing needs. Craig said he has never visited Fort Smith. The heat of the summer and a winter storm added to challenges for those living without shelter in Fort Smith. Colder days are ahead.
"I do know that the reason we're going there (Fort Smith) is that there are important areas that we want to capture with encampments and the organizations that are trying to reduce homelessness, and interviewing them," Craig said. "So we are excited about that."
He said surveys have not captured accurate pictures because many women avoid being interviewed when on the streets.
"I do know that homelessness among women is getting worse and it's unfortunate that the data throughout the U.S. has not been accurately captured. It is almost like the women didn't want to be surveyed. It has always been an issue."
He said on a recent trip to Los Angeles he interviewed Amy Turk, the CEO of the Downtown Women's Center on skid row designed to help women. "One of the questions that we asked her because I think it's pretty important, was "Why do women become homeless?' And the number one answer that Amy said is domestic violence."
Marriages and relationships break up, leading to homelessness. "The woman and the man have their relationship and then it goes sour. Then they divorce. They break up. The husband moves out, maybe he's already got a job. He's not paying alimony. He's not paying child support. And the wife, or the woman she doesn't have a job because she was taking care of the kids and she doesn't have adequate family nearby or friends, and that drives them into homelessness," Craig said. The Next Step program in Fort Smith has provided a day shelter at N. 6th Street and N. B Street. Transitional housing has helped homeless women return to the workforce. Next Step's day shelter location was an issue before the Fort Smith Board of Directors this year. A plan to relocate from downtown was approved. Next Step will move to 815 S. 6th Street, where the organization plans to build a new facility for its offices and non-congregate housing.
The non-congregate housing community would build on Next Step’s transitional housing program, which has three group homes, six single-family homes, a duplex, and four apartments around Fort Smith. Residents would live there for up to around six months. The nonprofit’s current program had a 76% success rate last year. The problem will be in focus for film crews in Fort Smith on Monday, Nov. 7. "No Address" is inspired by true events and the reality of the homeless experience in America, he said.
Executive Producer Robert G. Marbut Jr. has studied homelessness across the nation.
One of the stories in the documentary is about a woman named Suzette, a homeless woman who works her way out of her predicament in Los Angeles. She lost a job in Arizona, couldn't afford her rent, and could not buy a house. She lived out of her car before moving to Los Angeles where she was assisted at the Downtown Women's Center.
"They helped her in her journey coming back. And now she has a wonderful life and her own apartment in Los Angeles and she has a job and she is happy and excited," Craig said. "But the journey she went through is absolutely horrible and there definitely needs to be more policies and programs for housing for women," Craig said.
A greater number of women, who tend to take more risks, are exploring the streets for home and at some point, will find themselves unsheltered. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, he said. The film team will tour America, visiting homeless shelters and encampments. They will also be interviewing politicians, executives of national organizations in the fight to reduce homelessness, and also several people experiencing homelessness in strategic cities to collect vital data for the film. This material will also be used in a documentary series leading up to the film’s release. The stops for the film include Sacramento, Calif., Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin, Texas, San Antonio, Texas and Fort Smith, Nov. 7.
"The primary purpose of the film is not just to bring awareness but we want people when they are done watching the film to realize that homeless people are really people, and they need to get their humanity back, and they shouldn't be treated like they are being treated by most people in the U.S.," Craig said. Similar sentiments toward the homeless are found in cities across the country, he said.
"People are disgusted with them. They don't want to be near them. We understand why, but they need help, and so when we get the theatrical release and people watch it on film and they leave they will be so inspired by these characters who are developed into a storyline that they will realize that 'Oh my gosh! I didn't realize that the homeless people were really going through. We need to help." After leaving Fort Smith, the crews plan to stop in Nashville, on Nov. 8 and then head to Chicago, Winchester, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and New York City to complete the documentary.
"We want to cause action with our film. We want more people to be more involved in their community after watching the film," Craig said.