Homelessness can be a difficult issue to understand. While we may feel the need to do something about the homeless crisis, the actual experience of homelessness may seem very far removed from our own ordinary lives. This article will recommend four films you can stream right now, which will give you a look at the problem and perhaps help you understand what the unhoused are experiencing in the United States.
Dark Days was directed by British-born filmmaker Marc Singer, who had no experience in making movies at the time. Filmed over the course of two and a half years in the mid-1990s but not released until 2000, Dark Days documents a group of men living in Freedom Tunnel, an underground Amtrak tunnel stretching from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan north to Harlem and beyond. Using borrowed camera equipment and at times film donated by Kodak because it was damaged (but apparently still usable), Singer creates intimate and poignant portraits of the chronically homelessness. Most of the film subjects admit that the prospect of living in a train tunnel was terrifying at first, but they eventually found that it offered protection from depredation, harassment from police, and the other hazards of homelessness. Shot with black and white film stock, this gritty and distinctly claustrophobic documentary seems to hint at what it might be like to live as its subjects live. Interestingly, the men living in Freedom Tunnel themselves served as members of the film crew, rigging makeshift lighting in the subterranean darkness. Dark Days was roundly acclaimed by critics, winning top honors from the Sundance Film Festival, Austin’s SXSW Film Awards, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. It can be streamed on Amazon Prime and HBO: Max.
Directed by New York City-based filmmaker and journalist Jon Alpert, Dope Sick Love is an unflinchingly candid look at two couples: Matt and Tracy, and Sebastian and Michelle, all of whom are homeless heroin addicts. The film contains no real narrative structure, consisting solely of footage showing the two couples (sometimes together and sometimes alone) wandering the streets of New York City in search of shelter, money, and drugs. At turns tender, appalling, and heartbreaking Dope Sick Love offers frank and unveiled views into the lives of the drug-addicted and unhoused. The two couples drift in and out of rehab facilities, shelters, and jail, re-connecting at intervals but often missing connections. Viewers should be cautioned–much of the content is explicit and intense, although that is largely the point. The film contains no external narration, relying only on reports from Matt, Tracy, Sebastian, and Michelle. However, Dope Sick Love nevertheless poses the question of which force is stronger: addition or the need for human, romantic connection? The film was nominated for an Emmy Award for best documentary. It can be streamed on Hulu.
Written and directed by Krista Loughton and Jennifer Abbott and shot in British Columbia, Canada, and produced over a period of ten years, Us and Them reveals the homeless experience of four women. While perhaps not as explicit or hair-raising as either Dark Days or Dope Sick Love, the stories contained in Us and Them are just as gut-wrenching because they are far from uncommon: traumatic events such as loss of a loved one, legal problems, and familial abuse led each of the women away from their formerly productive and secure lives and into chronic homelessness and addiction. As the stories of each woman unfolds, a persistent and lingering motif will lead the viewer to think, “This could be me.” Us and Them treats each of the film subjects with compassion and sympathy, but nevertheless challenges the viewer to drop the distinctions of “us” and “them” and treat everyone as “us.” Us and Them can be streamed on Vimeo.
On the Streets: Los Angeles was produced as a series of twelve short episodes by the LA Times and then compiled into a single, 72-minute documentary. It is notable for its wide-angle look at the U.S. homelessness crisis. While the series does not get intimately close to very many of the subjects, filmmaker and journalist Lisa Biagiotti surveys the remarkable variety of the homelessless crisis. The unhoused individuals interviewed by Biagiotti range from the chronically homeless (some unhoused for years), to those thrust suddenly into homelessness by unexpected circumstances (often incarceration and subsequent release), to those who simply wish to live “off the grid” and away from society. One subject is a full-time bartender living in an RV with three other people to save up for a more-permanent resident. An unhoused woman living in a tent in Skid Row confesses that she is ten weeks pregnant. A college student who has been living in his car for a year while working on a PhD is revealed to have aspirations of opening a homeless youth shelter. Another interviewee is an 18-year-old former juvenile detainee who is apparently contemplating prostitution. Also interviewed are homeless shelter workers and law enforcement officers. On the Streets: Los Angeles can be viewed on YouTube.