No single political issue in Sarasota County, Florida has lingered so large in local politics as homelessness. Debates about shelters, housing programs and the balance between commerce and compassion have led to friction and volatile discourse between various government agencies in the region.
For local filmmaker Steve McAllister, the homeless experience is one he knows first hand. Through the creation of a web series dubbed Home Free, the Sarasotan documents both his own experiences choosing to live without using money and chronicles the evolving debate on handling homelessness in Southwest Florida.
McAllister, who right now is raising funds for a feature-length version of Home Free through the crowdsourcing site GoFundMe, says the experience of both living without creature comforts and speaking at length with officials of varying political stripes has deepened his own understanding of homelessness, both its plight on affected individuals and the impact on the community as a whole. He has a trailer ready (below) to drive up interest in the project.
But he also dug deeper into the issue, looking closely at the Step Up effort to end homelessness within a decade and following the difficult debate around a wet shelter proposed in the region by hired homelessness consultant Robert Marbut. Many elements of the public debate were chronicled in Home Free, a web series.
In an early episode, he looked at two major initiatives aimed at the problem:
“Many of the episodes are just condensed versions of meetings,” McAllister said. “I want to give people bite-sized versions of what has been discussed.”
Other episodes have shown county meetings where the matter was explored in-depth and interviews with involved officials, notably Sarasota homeless coordinator Wayne Applebee. But he also talks with people who have differing approaches to the problem: Sarasota City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, who was prepared to move ahead with a shelter; Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman, who opposed that but favors a housing first approach; Sarasota County Commissioners Joe Barbetta and Nora Patterson, who voted to hire Marbut to come to the region. What McAllister said he realized in the process of filmmaking was that most leaders in the region are interested in helping and have more compassion for the homeless themselves than most give credit for the elected officials.
McAllister’s plan long-term with the Home Free filmmaking process is to continue putting installments online through YouTube webisodes, but to also bring together a full-length documentary that looks beyond Southwest Florida and at how the problem is being tackled around the country. Micro-housing and other efforts have barely been discussed in the Sarasota area but prove just as interesting in terms of topics, according to McAllister.
“If I could get the right partners I’d like to see what people around the country are doing,” he said. “I’d like to go to Santa Cruz to see what they are doing there.” That’s where a “tiny houses” effort has garnered broad attention. But McAllister said he feels there is plenty of material in Sarasota to put together a full documentary looking at numerous sides of the debate if a budget allowing for national travel cannot be raised.
The filmmaker himself has also become more civicly engaged in the process along the way. This year he launched a write-in campaign for Sarasota County Commissioner; he suspended the campaign this week and backed independent candidate Alexandra Coe instead. In the film community, he has been involved in projects such as the Vincent Dale-helmed No Real Than You Are.
Most germane to this effort, perhaps, was his year-long experiment in his own like to live without money. Coming out of marriage just as an economic recession was underway, he thought it would be an interesting challenge to survive in the pursuit of “true wealth beyond just money.”
As for his own thoughts on handling the homeless issue? He is no longer as sold on a shelter as he used to be. “It isn’t a cure for homelessness, it’s a cure for shelterlessness,” he said. His greater interest these days is the high inventory of “zombie houses” sitting around the region post-recession. Why can’t some of those be used in a way that lead to a win-win both for title holders and transients?
The most important part right now is making sure people still have the conversation, he said. “This issue needs to be talked about,” he said. “We need to try and engage it a bit more.”