The Public Housing Crisis Gets Personal in New Doc

The place you hang your hat is so much more than that.
Brought to you byBrought to you by ReThink Housing
Nov 23, 2016·
Kelly Bryant is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer covering fashion, pop culture, and parenting for a variety of national publications.

As we head fast and furiously into the holiday season, there’s a lot of talk of home—traveling home, decorating a home, filling a home with family and friends for a holiday meal. But as the documentary Our Journey Home highlights, a stable dwelling is a lot more than the space you serve your Thanksgiving turkey or holiday ham.

The film explores the public housing crisis—a predicament that has remained largely under the radar despite staggering statistics—through the eyes of three different families. According to ReThink, an organization whose mission is to communicate the purpose of public housing, poverty has increased by 23.6 percent, while there has only been a 2.7 percent rise in the supply of assisted housing units. That’s a lot of households left with nowhere to go but the street.

“The first part of making any film for us is to do a really deep dive into discovery,” says Patrick Moreau, director of Our Journey Home, which was produced by Stillmotion in conjunction with ReThink. “We had a team of almost 30 people across the country interviewing people about their experiences with public housing. In coming into this reality, I think my first reaction was probably ‘This can’t be right. Somebody messed something up when they sent us these statistics. There’s no way there’s this much of a problem and nobody knows. How is this happening every day and nobody has any idea?’ ”

Last week marked National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It’s a time to bring these issues to the forefront and a reminder to pay attention to laws passed by local governments to help all families thrive.

Byron Ellis, whose personal experience with public housing is featured in Our Journey Home, is a medical resident at the University of Colorado Hospital. Eager to share his story with the masses, he hopes the film sheds light on his not being alone in owing at least some of his success to living in stable housing.

“There are a lot of people just like me who kind of go unnoticed, kinda hang in the background,” says Ellis. “There’s so much negativity associated with the Housing Authority. There are a lot of positive stories. I have a lot of friends who grew up in the same neighborhood I did and are doing great things. Sometimes we don’t get highlighted. We get lost because there’s so much negativity that’s associated with people who come from environments like that.”

Moreau hopes the documentary will draw more empathy and compassion for the homeless and those in need of public housing, particularly considering there shouldn’t be any us and them. What Our Journey Home spotlights is that anyone can find him- or herself in need after just one life change.

“We are a studio that really loves to tackle hard issues,” he says. “But we do it diligently through the power of story to really get people to embrace things they normally wouldn’t want to talk about because they’re uncomfortable. They might not feel like it affects them, or they might not understand it. This documentary tackles homelessness and public housing through a cast of characters that all have a very different experience of what that’s like. But the hope was, through the story, that you realize just how similar they are to you. You’re not nearly as safe and protected as you might have imagined.”

There’s a reason housing stability doesn’t feel like a reality for so many. Paying rent on an average two-bedroom dwelling requires a wage of $19.35 per hour. This means that a renter household needs 2.7 full-time jobs paying the minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom unit at a fair market rent.

“People who live [in public housing] aren’t trying to find an easy way out,” says Ellis. “Some of us are taking full advantage of opportunities that come with public housing. It’s a temporary place for us to call home as opposed to living on the street, where it can be hard to accomplish your dreams and goals. That doesn’t set you up for success. Public housing gives you one less thing to worry about and helps you have funds to allocate to resources to help you succeed.”

In Denver, where he now lives, he sees the need for affordable housing growing.

“Every day people are talking about increased housing, increasing rents. Every day I drive by these apartments that are high-rise, luxury apartments, and they’re tearing down places that are affordable and related to the Housing Authority,” says Ellis. “It makes me upset because they’re leaving out those people who are living paycheck to paycheck—people who lived somewhere for 15 years, providing for their family and now their place is getting torn down because they want to build high-rise apartments.”

Moreau would like to see Our Journey Home connect with local organizations to really make an impact on the efforts of public housing.

“We had a screening in Portland with the Public Housing Authority, and we did bring up a bill that was getting passed and how people can support that,” he says. “That was very well received. I think that’s the perfect storm of how this can work, is partnering the story with local groups and local actions that can be taken.

“My personal hope as the director of the film is just an increase in empathy and understanding. We get up and see so many people who are without a home, and we can judge or dismiss or just not even try to understand. In watching this, I’m hoping people take an additional moment and think and consider and engage and have a much deeper understanding of who this person could actually be—and then, when there’s an opportunity to make a difference, hopefully they choose to do so.”

You can bring Our Journey Home to your own community through a movie screening with ReThink via Tugg. Our Journey Home is also available for viewing on YouTube and Vimeo.