Even as homelessness makes headlines in Southwest Florida and across the country, it can be hard to picture a sympathetic face for the plight of the poor. But a new film, Homeless, takes on the task in a work of fiction, telling the story of an 18-year-old transient forced to live in a shelter after his grandmother’s death. “We often as a society classify the homeless as drunkards who made poor decisions and who have to live in the bed they made,” says director Clay Riley Hassler. “But that’s not an accurate picture.”
Homeless will premier in Florida and screen at the Sarasota Film Festival next week, and will do so at a time when leaders in this community are struggling to forge forward on the issue of homelessness here.
The film was created by Florida State University graduates Clay and Tif Hassler, a husband-and-wife team. The character of Gosh, played in the film by first-time actor Michael McDowell, is based on a real homeless person the couple encountered at an adult Sunday School class in North Carolina. “When we met the real Gosh, nothing classified him as homeless, and it took him a long time to admit that he was,” Clay recalls. But the man had stumbled through on a series of tragedies, with a father in prison and mother out of the picture as his own support system fell apart while he was just 18. “He in life had experienced more than what most of us will ever go through, and we wanted to share that story with everyone else.”
The entire film was shot over 25 days in the Winston-Salem, N.C. area, with the filmmaking team bringing cameras into a real shelter and casting the actual homeless patrons and shelter staff in roles in the production. Scenes where the rules of the shelter—no cell phone use, no fighting, report neighbors’ smell privately and early in the night—were the actual instructions given to the people staying in the shelter each night.
In the film, the character of Gosh deals with a series of challenges endured by the homeless all the time, like convincing someone to hire him for a low-paying job and then being unable to work the expected hours. But more than just repainting the difficulties of living as a transient, the Hasslers also wanted to show how hard it can be to rise up from the situation. “Once you are a part of a system, it’s really hard to break out,” Clay says. Once a shelter provides a place to stay, can you leave it?
As Sarasota wrestles with its own intense debates about homeless shelters, Clay stressed that the shelter in the film was not only accommodating to the film production but also extremely helpful to those who stayed there. The facility had a soup kitchen, financial planning classes and Alcoholics Anonymous groups to help people overcome a range of personal problems. Perhaps most important, the shelter provided a sense of structure for people whose own lives had fallen into disarray.
But Tif, the film’s producer, says communities must also work to help people before they become homeless. “You need to get someone before that one last step and make sure it is not into a shelter,” she says, “especially with youth homeless. Whatever way we can, we need to make sure youth are not stuck in a shelter and don’t know how to get back out of it.”
More than providing perfect solutions to the challenge, the filmmakers said the chief mission of the film was always showing a realistic and relatable story about the struggles an an individual surviving the homeless experience. “We wanted it to be an honest story, not gritty but ground level, about what it is like to be in a homeless shelter,” Clay says.
The movie will host its premiere at the Florida Film Festival on Monday, April 13. Sarasota audiences will get a chance to see it the next day at the Sarasota Film Festival, on Tuesday, April 14, at 8:15pm at the Regal Hollywood 20. Clay and Tif Hessler, as well as lead actor McDowell, will attend Sarasota Film Festival events this weekend before driving to the Orlando area for the premiere, then will come back for the Tuesday screening. The film also screens again in Sarasota on Wednesday, April 15, but the filmmakers will be back in Orlando for a screening there.