Filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly are on a mission to defeat stereotypes and bring new insight into the lives of homeless teenagers. In their documentary The Homestretchthe directing duo follow the lives of three teens, hoping to give a new prespective on the circumstances surrounding their unfortunate situations. The Homestretch screens on June 20 in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, followed by a discussion with de Mare and Kelly.

FilmLinc asked the directors included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival to give some insight on filmmaking and tackling issue-oriented work prior to the launch of the series on June 13.

The Homestretch
Anne de Mare & Kirsten Kelly, USA, 2014, 89m

Description: The Homestretch follows three homeless teens in Chicago as they fight to stay in school, graduate, and build a future. Each of these smart, ambitious teenagers—Roque, Kasey, and Anthony—will surprise, inspire, and challenge audiences to rethink stereotypes of homelessness as they work to complete their education while facing the trauma of being alone and abandoned at an early age. Through haunting images, intimate scenes, and first-person narratives, the teens take us on their journeys of struggle and triumph. As their stories unfold, the film connects us to larger issues of poverty, race, juvenile justice, immigration, foster care, and LGBT rights. The Homestretch is a powerful, original perspective on what it means to be young, homeless, and building a future in America today.

Responses from de Mare and Kelly:

On discovering the subject of their film:

We came to the issue of youth homelessness through a theater program that Kirsten runs each fall with Chicago Public School students called CPS Shakespeare! In the fall of 2009, she was shocked to learn that two of the bright, motivated kids she was working with were homeless. It was one of those moments in life when everything just stopped—how could this be? These kids were bright, talented, funny, and ambitious. They were going to school and attending rehearsals, but each night they didn’t know where they were going to sleep. They were working so hard to make something happen for themselves while being alone in an impossible situation. For us, they put a completely unexpected face on homeless youth, and made it clear that there was a story here that we had never heard. As we delved deeper into the issue, we learned that so many of the homeless kids we encountered weren't rebellious runaways, but fierce survivors, escaping the horrors of violence, drug addiction, broken family structures, poverty, and crime. They were often thrown out of the house because of sexual preference, abandoned by parents who were unable emotionally or financially to care for them, or chose to leave because of physical or sexual abuse.  We wanted to empower them to tell their own stories.  

On establishing new perspectives and awareness:

While we know it can’t “solve” youth homelessness, The Homestretch can spark an intensive, inspiring dialogue about how we, as a society, are addressing this complex problem and how we can do better. Through our filmmaking journey and early advocacy meetings, we’ve focused in on four areas that can The Homestretch can contribute to this work:

1. The #1 obstacle for many homeless youth and the organizations working to help support them is the negative stereotypes that surround homelessness. It is our hope that, through the deeply personal journeys of Kasey, Anthony, and Roque, this film will shine a much-needed light on one of the most hidden and exploited populations in America—unaccompanied homeless youth.  

2. Youth service organizations need more support. There are amazing people doing great work to help homeless youth, but they don’t have the capacity to handle the scope of the crisis. They need more support. The film will target bringing additional volunteers, mentors, and donations to these organizations.

3. We need more school-based interventions. Our public schools are on the front lines of this crisis. They are often the only stability in the lives of homeless students, and teachers are often the first to identify the homeless students who need help. The film will help bring support to teachers, principals, and administrators.

4. Political pressure—we need to highlight this crisis for policy makers on a local, state, and federal level. By bringing these stories to audiences around the nation, we can build urgency, awareness, and increased bi-partisan support for this issue. The Homestretch will bring a much-needed human face to this crisis and help focus empathy around proposed policy.

The power of documentary film lies in its ability to tell complex stories that serve as catalysts for organizing, network-building, and civic action. The Homestretch will leverage this power through policy briefings, targeted screenings, community events, and ongoing coalition building in order to address these four obstacles.   

On working with the uncertainty of their subjects' lives:

One of our greatest challenges was coming face to face with the reality of the chaotic lives of our subjects. Things change daily. Homeless youth have learned not to count on anything. One day, they have a cell phone they can text with. And then they don’t. We would pick them up to film, and they hadn’t eaten for days. We would lose track of them for periods of time. They would be crashing one place one night, and then be somewhere else the next. In the end, we worked to allow this chaos into the film, including cell-phone footage they captured themselves while alone, as well as phone calls and text exchanges. Some of our most poetic, intimate interviews happened informally on the fly, while we spent long days and nights with them. For more than four years, were privileged to work with these young people at an extremely turbulent and vulnerable time in their lives. Conveying the transition from their adolescence into independent adulthood, it was our goal that the film provide an intimate and haunting portrait of the unique physical, emotional, and psychological needs of homeless teens.  

On defeating stereotypes:

<p>At the heart of The Homestretch is the message that adolescence is a very small window through which one enters into adulthood. Without help, the window that homeless youth face becomes increasingly smaller. We hope that after audiences witness these young kid’s struggles, they will better, more humanely, understand this growing crisis, and be inspired to ask how we, as a society, can do better in supporting young people who are making this difficult transition alone. We hope The Homestretch will defeat the harmful stereotypes around why youth are homeless, because these stereotypes represent an enormous barrier to the civic dialogue that is necessary to provide increased support to services on the local, state and federal level for the highly vulnerable and growing population of homeless youth in America today.