Today I am adding a “Movie Reviewer” hat to my rack. It seems my social media profile somewhere qualified me for this, so I have had the occasional offer of screeners for upcoming films.
“American Street Kid” had a showing December 11 at Chicago’s Regal Webster Place, in advance of a wider run later. It’s a documentary that takes the often ignored subject of homeless children, here living in the streets of Los Angeles, around Hollywood and the Venice beach area.
Director Michael Leoni himself was rescued from a life on the street by friends and a girlfriend. He wrote a play based on his experiences, “Playground.” During its run, he discovered some homeless girls had been coming to see the play several times, telling him its was a realistic reflection of their own lives. But shortly after meeting Leoni, each girl was found dead on the streets.
Leoni took a camera to the streets, where the kids hung out, wanting to produce a two minute public service announcement. It took time to find a group of kids who would trust this small film crew enough to talk about their lives, but in their stories, we find common threads: none of the wants to be living like this; most of them ran away from abusive parents or were kicked out of the house, some for the “sin” of being gay. Or they were bounced around the foster care system until they aged out.
Most lived by a daily routine of “spenging,” or begging for cash during the days, buying or selling drugs, or themselves, then trying to find a safe “squat” for the night. This movie shows the group sneaking on to the rooftop of an apartment building, but most of the time they hunker in a viaduct or overpass. Most of them are on drugs, some are HIV-positive, some are pregnant and hoping that a baby will help them get services. The kids Leoni befriends are part of a larger group that sometimes tries to look out for each other. As one of the boys says…
Documentary films mostly maintain the “fourth wall,” just like dramas. The film crew rarely gets involved; and interview subjects may look straight at the camera while an unseen voice asks questions. But early in the project, Michael’s narration declares, “I’m gonna get every one of those kids off the street.” From here on, we see more of him on camera, on the phone trying to connect to social services.
Becoming the Story
Leoni quickly learns that social services, food and outreach centers are only open a few hours a day. Counseling services are understaffed, have long waiting lists, and all volunteer-run. Leoni had already sublet his home home and was living in his garage to get funds for his PSA turned feature. He tries getting about six of the kids a motel rooms, but money for that runs out too soon.
As we get to know the kids, we find some are very eloquent and try to set definite goals, when they can stay sober. There’s an asiring guitarist and songwriter who actually gets some bookings. There’s the boy who manages to work for awhile with Leoni’s film crew. But many of them can’t get a job because they can’t get an ID or Social Security card… because they can’t get their birth certificates… because they can’t even find out what hospital they were born in. And there’s nowhere to go to wash up and become presentable for an interview. Drugs and booze are much easier to come by than help.
We can guess what’s going to happen from here on in: some success, but a lot of failures. Leoni is seen scrambling through nighttime streets when “his” kids get into trouble. Some of them die. Others simply disappear, one of them just as he’s been approved into a residential program. But some of the kids do make it, by getting sober, getting through school or landing a job and a place to stay. Leoni ends up starting Spare Some Change, a mentoring program that tries to reach the kids sooner than social services can find room for them.
This documentary offers a rare, close-up look of eight kids from across the country who ended up in California. While we walk through their stories, the stories are being re-enacted thousands of time, with 1.8 million homeless children.