Walking past a homeless person on the street—especially in a city like San Francisco, where that experience might happen dozens of times a day—it's easy to start to think that homelessness is an unsolvable problem. A new series of short films makes the point that it's not.
"It began by living in the Bay Area," says San Francisco-based filmmaker Natasha Giraudie. "It's part of your story every day to see these people living at the fringes of humanity. It also kind of started from talking to friends and people that I know and realizing that there's this general sense of heartbreak and frustration with the crisis that we have. People didn't really know how to become part of the solution."
Giraudie, CEO and creative director of a filmmaking company called Micro-Documentaries, decided to create a series of what she calls "possibility stories"—examples of new ways that people are trying to tackle the problem, that can inspire others to come up with solutions of their own.
"San Francisco culture—the way I see it—is defined by where innovation meets activism," she says. "There's this desire to creatively address social and environmental issues, through kind of innovative ways that people haven't thought of. So in this series, we look at what happens when we apply that level of innovation and creativity."
One film tells the story of Lava Mae, which turns old city buses into mobile showers that homeless people can use for basic hygiene (the city's thousands of homeless people have access to only 16 showers, otherwise). Another focuses on a meditation and yoga program that helps homeless teenagers deal with the stress of living on the street.
Each of the stories aims to humanize the homeless people who are featured. While taking a class at Stanford Medical Center last year, Giraudie was struck by a study that showed the brain scans of people looking at someone who was homeless.
"The insula lights up, which is what usually lights up when people encounter something of great disgust," she says. "Even more tragic than that, the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up very brightly when you recognize another human being, another being of your own species, barely light up at all. So this is probably the greatest underlying issue."
As people watch the films, she hopes they have a different reaction. "The real goal is to light up that medial prefrontal cortex," she says. "I think that would be a big step. Because then once we recognize them as human beings, then how can we possibly permit this to be happening?"
Solutions to end homelessness exist, she says—programs like the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, featured in one of the films, which provides not only housing but counseling and support finding work.
"I came out of this with an understanding that the problem is completely solvable," she says. "There are models that work really well, and that there's a lack of prioritization and resource allocation. That's really what it comes down to. We're dealing with a solvable problem, which makes it that much more embarrassing that we're not fully addressing it."