Filming for a cause
Nestled in the heart of Little Rock, UALR has always been aware of the community it is a part of. Administrators and faculty make a conscious effort to teach students the importance of giving back. Last semester, documentary film-making students, led by mass communication professor David Weekley, went into Little Rock’s homeless community to raise awareness of the issue.
Weekley was approached last fall by Dorothy Robbins, a homeless outreach volunteer with Family Called Us Inc., a Little Rock-based homeless advocate group. Robbins wanted a video that would highlight homelessness in Arkansas and what’s being done about it.
“Many people have seen the videos and it’s helped them understand the homeless condition,” Weekley said. “Students [saw] that they can do something about their community.”
According to Family Called Us, there are some 1,300 homeless people in Central Arkansas, and according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 40 percent of those are chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for over a year. But being homeless doesn’t always look like the dirty, unkempt picture that most people see.
“The face of homelessness has changed,” said William Tollett, director of the Union Rescue Mission and co-chair of the Arkansas Homeless Coalition. “Homelessness looks like me. It looks like you.”
In 2004, MSNBC dubbed Little Rock the “meanest” city in America when it came to dealing with the homeless. “[Little Rock and North Little Rock] were embarrassed by that,” said UALR professor David Sink. “It became a public issue.”
As a result, the city created a 10-year-plan to help with the problem. “They tried to specifically address ending chronic homelessness,” Tollett said. “There is a possibility of finding some type of transitional housing for them to move into.”
After the plan was put in place, Arkansas lawmakers went to work to bring the issue to the governmental table. “The General Assembly here in Arkansas … passed the housing trust fund,” Sink said. “They got it passed, and it wasn’t funded.”
“The prevailing community attitude people have toward homelessness, it’s been a challenge,” said Dennis Beavers, a Family Called Us volunteer. “A lot of people are saying ‘yeah they need help, but not my yard, not in my neighborhood, not here.”
“It’s really hard to not get frustrated at a system that let it get that bad,” said Michelle Boyd, a senior in Weekley’s class.
Weekley’s students worked with Family Called Us throughout the research process, and they met with volunteers and homeless people to get a feel for what their world is like. Throughout the project, the students went with the homeless to see where they slept, ate and spent their time.
“The students were remarkable in their ability to grasp the issues quickly,” Robbins said. “The results of the video films are remarkable.”
Students split into groups to do their projects, and it’s apparent in the resulting movies that they were affected by what they saw.
“When I saw a homeless person on the street [before this project] I had a feeling of pity,” Boyd said. “I thought, there’s got to be something else. There has to be some sort of living quarters out there.”
Boyd said that the longer she worked on the project, the more she realized that homelessness wasn’t what she had thought before. “It’s not necessarily a scruffy looking panhandler asking for change,” she said. “A lot of people out [in a home] are just a paycheck away.”
Homelessness has become a widespread problem in recent decades. Robbins said it started as a result of a law that essentially shut down mental health facilities in the ‘60s, but that the recession has made it much worse. According to Family Called Us, the two main things that contribute to homelessness today is a lack of affordable rental housing and an increase in the poverty level. In 2011, more than 15 percent, or about 46 million people in the United States lived in poverty. Families make up more than 40 percent of the homeless population at any given moment.
“By the time most of the homeless contact [us], they have used up most of the resources in this area and have nowhere to go,” Robbins said. “We are a team of volunteers, so [we are] not an agency with case managers, health professionals, etc. We are very experienced in working with the homeless and share all the resources we have, including transportation, help with housing, employment, mental health problems, etc.”
Robbins said volunteers and organizations are trying to help people out of their situations, instead of enabling them to continue as things are. Many places require tenants to be employed, and some charge a small fee to stay for a night. These places also help by providing food, a place to shower and transportation to and from work or church services.
Without knowing what projects she would work on, Boyd said she took this class over the movie-making class not only for the experience, but also because she felt she could make more of a difference doing documentaries.
“As a person who’s putting themselves into the project, it’s so much more fulfilling to know that I could open somebody’s eyes to something they had no clue about,” she said. “Even if they just came out of it with a ‘wow, I had no idea,’ then that was something.”
Boyd said she was glad to work on a project she could really put herself into.
“If you pick a topic that you can’t get passionate about, it doesn’t work,” she said. “Your heart really does have to be in a documentary.”
The videos made by Weekley’s class have been uploaded to Youtube, and Family Called Us has used them for marketing and to raise awareness. In February, Boyd’s video was aired on UALR’s public access station (channel 62 for cable and 99 for U-Verse).