A Tangled Jungle

Filmmakers document the homeless in Bellingham

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Perhaps no narrative more starkly illustrates the despair, the cycle of decay that can await the homeless than the story of a man who cut his own throat with a shaving razor while in Whatcom County jail last week.

Timothy Blair Drafs, 50, a homeless man from Bellingham, was being held alone in a cell block on the second floor of the jail, awaiting trial. He was given a safety razor to clean himself up and make him presentable. Deputies, making the rounds to collect razors from inmates later in the evening discovered him with terrible wounds to his neck. Aid responded but found he had died.

Drafs had a long history in and and out of the criminal justice system and on the streets, suffering from bouts of mental illness and depression, alcoholism and drug addiction—themes common to the homeless in communities across the country. He had been in custody since mid-May after being arrested following a late-evening fight outside a bar on State Street. He had outstanding warrants for arrest and was held without capacity to make bail until his trial in July.

Friends say he spent much of his adult life behind bars on a succession of charges.

“A lot of people, especially homeless people, would say he’s a nice person, a kind-hearted person,” a family friend told the Bellingham Herald. “He was not a monster.”

Not every story of homelessness is this dark; some are encouraging, even inspirational—but nearly all require some form of community support and involvement.

Understanding of the issues and pressures that lead to homelessness, the knowledge that these are people often caught in a grinding cycle not entirely of their making, is an important step in recognizing homelessness in modern society and addressing it. They’re not monsters and, by tortured fate and cruelties of fortune, their stories might be our own.

A man who is injured at work cannot get work, and because he cannot pay his rent he is homeless and his injuries will not heal—sometimes the forces that pitch people into the street are that simple, and that brutal in their cycling self-reinforcement.

People who work with the homeless locally believe the more people understand homelessness, the more they may do to help. A film series last year brought the stories of several homeless families to viewers in local schools, churches, and neighborhood groups, and was positively received. The producers and supporters—including the Whatcom Homeless Service Center at Opportunity Council—want to tell more stories in a second series of documentary films.

Like the first set of documentaries, the second season will introduce viewers to issues surrounding homelessness and feature personal accounts from people living life on the streets. Some of the new topics to be covered will include homeless families, mental health, and LGBTQ youth. Many of the latter are driven from their homes because of family controversy surrounding their sexual orientation.

“Audiences really connected with the people on the screen who are living in a constant state of crisis right here in their community,” said Greg Winter, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.

Shot and edited by anthropologists and producers Fredrick Dent and Lisa Spicer of SpicerDent Productions, the first series presented views of homelessness from local healthcare experts, a housing provider, an emergency responder, a corrections official, and an emergency room doctor. The series included interviews with military veterans with serious medical conditions who could not escape the trap of homelessness. One documentary told the story of homelessness through the eyes of volunteers who offered to serve lunch to those in need. Others focused on how stable housing can provide the foundation for improved physical and mental health, and, in the process, save enormous amounts of public expenditure.

The Opportunity Council is trying to raise $20,000 to cover production costs for a second season and is asking for the public’s help through a crowdfunding campaign and fundraiser at Pickford Film Center.

Documenting the descent into homelessness presents unique challenges to a filmmaker, Dent observed.

“You get bits and pieces over time,” he said. “You meet a person in a camp and you do some filming. You may never see him again. Some you will. So I will see these big changes in people’s lives separated by months of no contact. To be able to get enough bits and pieces to create a narrative arc sometimes takes a long time.”

Thematically, films try to focus on the key moment of descent, “a moment ‘when it happened’ and the wheels came off,” Dent said. “This could happen to you. This could happen to me,” he said.

Filmmakers want to focus attention in their second series on a significant yet under-reported population we perhaps don’t imagine in homeless camps—at-risk youth.

“Roughly 8 to 10 percent of the general population of the homeless would fall into the category of youth,” Frederick Dent observed. “Nationwide, 40 percent of our homeless youth are LGBTQ. This shows an enormous number of our young people are unhoused, for whatever reason. One reason is there is a lack of acceptance in a lot of strongly ideological households, fundamentalist households, and young people just can’t bear it. So they end up on the streets.”

Documentaries involving youth require special care, Dent said.

One of the wonderful things about this series is, when Greg Winter and I developed it, we decided that every episode needed to have its own style. If a story needs to be black and white, so be it; if it needs music, no problem,” he said. “The delicate nature of working with minors, the ramifications of talking about homelessness and their prior home life, we are taking a more allegorical approach to this. Our plan is to work with Northwest Youth Services to develop a theatrical workshop where youth can develop the archetypes of the characters and events that inevitably occur in oppressive households that lead to descent into homelessness.

“Because they’re not directly depicting themselves, but rather the archetypes that they have all experienced, we hope to have something that is very highly representative but lacks in specificity,” a documentary style Dent identifies as ethnofiction—“this is an event that could have happened in this culture,” he said.

Other films will focus on mental illness and the disease of addiction, working with area agencies.

“Our least focused episode in one we did on the camps, what we call ‘the jungle.’ Just by the nature of camps, it can be a crazy experience,” Dent said. The film will premiere as part of the producers’ event at the PFC. “It could freak a lot of people out.”

The filmmakers stress that their work is infused with an ethic that permeates social work on behalf of the homeless in our community.

“This kind of work is built on relationships,” Dent said. “It’s taken a long time to get to know people and become aware of the incredible connectivity that we have here in Bellingham.

“Our connectedness our a greatest resource.”

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