Growing up in Israel, the concept of homelessness was completely foreign to Yaniv Rokah, the director of Queen Mimi. Although things have worsened there since he was a boy, and the plague of homelessness has now spread to the Holy Lands as it has throughout the rest of the industrialized world, the move to New York to attend acting school as a younger man opened his eyes to what was previously unimaginable. Nor did he imagine that one day his life would be so changed by a relationship with one of the unimaginables.
After five years of cultivating a friendship with the bubbly octogenarian known as Queen Mimi and documenting her story, Rokah has switched roles from actor to director, and created a beautiful film. It may actually be one of the most light hearted films about homelessness ever made. Queen Mimi, a regular fixture at the Fox Laundromat in Santa Monica for the last two decades offers us a testament as to how “personal resilience and community initiative can move mountains and make a difference,” Rokah says.
Indeed, the star of the film, now hunchbacked from sleeping in chairs and on sidewalks during most of her golden years, is friendly, affable, and seemingly one of the most happy people you’ll ever meet, despite the challenges she faces on a regular basis. Although Mimi seems to glide through her situation with unwieldy grace, the film does make us question how many other senior citizens are sleeping on cement and don’t have the supportive network of friends that Mimi has been able to establish for herself.
Currently featured in the USA series Dig, about archeology in Jerusalem, Yaniv Rokah took the time to sit and speak with me about what he has come to understand about homelessness since making the film. Since first experiencing their plight in New York, he says that he has developed a true heart for the homeless, and is planning to produce another documentary orchestrating what has come to be known as the Housing First initiative. Although Rokah had not heard it called that before, the plan for his film is to get able minded people into supportive housing, give them a second chance, and see how they progress.
The Housing First initiative, which the Manasota Continuum of Care and the City of Sarasota have recently adopted as a best practice measure, provides supportive and transitional housing for the chronically homeless, regardless of mental illness, addiction, or other ailments. In other communities where it has been implemented for the last decade, communities have seen a dramatic drop in chronic homelessness at a fraction of the cost for what they paid while using a Crisis Management Model, which Sarasota has practiced for the last several decades. While not every homeless person has friends like Zach Galifaniakus and Renee Zelweger to help get them off the streets, Queen Mimi’s story showcases how banding together to care for others increases the quality of life for all.