“One story in particular that really affected all of us involved a young woman in in Florida,” Steven Vasquez Jr. tells me. I’m talking to him about the new documentary film, Lost in America. The film chronicles the stories of 30 homeless youth across the country. Vasquez was a producer and Director of Photography on the project.
“Her name is Harley,” Lost in America‘s director, Rotimi Rainwater, continues. “She was one day off the street. So I told Harley, ‘Don’t worry, I’m gonna take it easy on you. I’m not asking you to get deep into your story,’ And she went, ‘Okay.’ And I was like, ‘Tell me your name and how you were on the streets.’ She got through four words: ‘My name is Harley.’ And then she completely lost it. It wasn’t just tears. She emotionally broke down to the point where she just couldn’t get words out.”
When she was finally able to speak again, Harley told a harrowing tale. As a very young child, Harley and her sister had been forced into child pornography by their parents. It was the kind of story that Rainwater and Vasquez would soon hear from youth all around the country, but at this point, their journey had only just started. They were shocked. In Harley’s case, her path to being a homeless teen started with what should have been her salvation, escaping from her monstrous parents. Harley and her sister were able to sneak a DVD of their abuse to an uncle. He turned her parents into the police. And that should have been the start to a better life. Harley’s parents were put into a federal penitentiary, and she and her sister had ‘escaped.’ But, unfortunately, the horror and sexual exploitation didn’t end for Harley there. The girls became lost in the midst of a bad system. And with no help, support, or anyone to help them, became homeless.
“She’d escaped, but she didn’t really know what to do or where to go,” Vasquez [who also freelances at Uproxx] says. “So she turned to what she knew. She was working.”
Prostitution was the only way Harley felt she could support herself. So the youth found shady men to take her in and sold herself on the street. Vasquez and Rainwater expected the kids they found to have horrible stories, but Harley’s bleak history left the entire crew shaken. The gravity of what they were undertaking was sinking in.
“The true emotional impact really hit us, the vulnerability that these youth have,” Rainwater says. “It was the second day of shooting and people were almost getting sick in the van.”
Lost in America, took nearly three years to film. But in some ways, it was over two decades in the making. Because this story really starts in 1990 when the director, Rotimi Rainwater, returned home from the Navy to find that he had no home to return to. The young man ended up homeless and living on the streets for almost a year.
“I never really dealt with it,” Rainwater says. “I hid it for a long time, and then just kind of realized as I was turning 40, that it was just time for me to do something about it.”
The director had made a fictional film a few years earlier called Sugar, which borrowed from some of his experiences on the streets. But it didn’t feel like enough.
“So I called Steve and I was like, ‘I want to make a documentary about it and really tell people what’s going on with these kids,’” he continues. “And it felt like a karmic duty for us. We all felt like if we didn’t do it, who would?”
“We went out to Venice and filmed seven youth,” Vasquez says of how he was convinced to join the project. “By the end of it I was like, ‘This is it. I have to do this. We have to do this.’ I think the other producers on the project that were there felt the same way. We all just made a commitment to each other and to the kids that we were going see this through and share these stories no matter what.”
Using crowdfunding to pay for the passion project, the team embarked on a three year journey to interview kids and document their stories. Many of the people they interviewed normally would have refused to talk or might have shut down when asked to express such painful experiences. But Rainwater’s own time being homeless gave the documentarians unprecedented access to the kids. Hearing Rainwater’s own experiences, helped the youth to feel safe. Like they were talking to someone who understood them. But while Rainwater was willing to share his story with the youth he talked to, he really didn’t want his own experiences to be a part of the documentary.
“When we first started the film, I was telling everybody I don’t want to be in it. I don’t want to tell my story,” he says. The film’s team however kept trying to convince him that his perspective was an important layer of the story they were telling. Rainwater began trying to open up more but it was incredibly difficult. “For someone who hasn’t really talked about it for 20 years, to go from that to having to talk about it every single day,” he says, “It became, it just became this thing where my past became more of my reality again. You try to push it as far down as possible. And so you become disconnected to it. But the more and more you talk about it, the closer it comes to you and becomes real again”
He remembers the day the floodgates truly opened for him. “I remember there was a moment within the first few months that we were doing a fundraiser,” he says. He was adamant that he wasn’t going to tell his story that night. But after showing a film clip, people kept asking him to share his experience. “I started to talk and I guess it was that moment when the bubble burst and I just lost it,” he says. “We were in a room of 100 people. And it really came out. It was cathartic and it did help me deal with it because eventually those emotions…that box you put ’em in can only hold ’em for so long. Especially if every day you’re messing with the lock.”
Making the film, Rainwater says, helped him to make peace with the past that had haunted him for so many years. “Now, I’m in a different place in my life. I have a two year old daughter, and I’ve made peace with my past,” he says. “But it was definitely a very difficult journey for me.”
It’s estimated that over 5000 youth die on the street every year. That’s a little over 13 kids a day. A staggering number of youth are dying, and in many ways, Rainwater says, it’s an invisible issue. It’s hard to even say how many kids in total experience homelessness per year or are on the streets at any given time. HUD has estimated 48,000, the Department of Justice at one point estimated 1.7 million. This discrepancy in numbers is a huge part of the problem.
“We don’t have a clue how big the problem is,” Vasquez says. “If you don’t know the size and scope of the problem, you can’t really address the issue. These organizations that we met with, they’ve been able to effectively help youth, but the issue is there’s no money out there for their programs.”
Faced with meeting so many homeless youth, and such depressing statistics, it became clear quickly to the crew on Lost in America that simply documenting the problem wasn’t enough.
“Every time we walked away, there was another story,” Vasquez says. “Another kind of soul-crushing experience a kid went through. One girl took us to the forest she lived in after she had been thrown out of the house. In Denver, we were in drainage tunnels where the kids stayed, sewer tunnels…the things these youth have to do to survive is phenomenal and heartbreaking at the same time. Quickly it became like, how can we get you off the street? How can we help you end the trauma that you’re going through on a daily basis?”
They were entirely crowdfunded and had a very low budget, but even so were able to personally get four of the kids they met off of the street.
“It hit us that, wow, it doesn’t really take a lot,” Rainwater says. “If this little film could do that, imagine what could happen if Americans became aware of the issue.” So they’ve become passionate about getting the word out to people before the film is even released, hoping to create a grassroots movement that’s in place to get change started. The campaign, called Wake Up, has become a solution-oriented outgrowth of the issue.
Rotimi and Vasquez say that while it may have started off as a documentary, Lost in America has become so much more than that. They don’t just want to be a film, they want to be the rallying point that gets people to stand up and do something about kids having to live on the street. It’s what separates them from other projects.
“We need as many eyes on the film as possible upon its release,” they say on Indiegogo, “but more than that, we need a nation-wide campaign to engage and enrage Americans about the truths surrounding this issue. And we will not stop until we do so.”
Through rallies and campaigns, the pair hopes to educate the American public about youth homelessness. Because most Americans have no idea, they say, just how big the problem is or how many kids are suffering.
“There’s less than 5,000 beds available for homeless youth nationwide,” Rainwater says. “What always gets us is that there are 5,000 animal shelters nationwide and less than 400 shelters for homeless youth.” It’s a disturbingly low amount of shelters for young people. Teens aren’t allowed to go to family shelters because they’re told they are too old, and with adult shelters, they’re often preyed upon or fall victim to abuse. But most people, Vasquez and Rainwater tell me, are either unaware that there are as many homeless youth as there are, or uninformed as to the causes of homelessness amongst teens.
“There’s a stigma in America that kids are on the street because they want to be,” Rainwater says. “That they don’t want to listen to their parents or to have rules or they want to go do drugs. But no child wakes up, no 13-year-old or whatever, wakes up from watching Nickelodeon with their mom the night before and decides, ‘Today I want to go eat out of the trashcan.’ It doesn’t happen.”
Rainwater outlines three main reasons why kids are on the street. Home doesn’t exist anymore, home isn’t safe, or home doesn’t want them anymore.
In situations where home doesn’t exist, it’s often because of economic downturn where the whole family goes homeless or a situation where their parent/guardian dies or abandons them. “We know a young man named Eddie,” Rainwater tells me. “His mother died, his father was committed, and people forgot about him. So he lived in the family’s abandoned house for three years with no electricity and no running water.”
For kids like Harley and her sister, sometimes home isn’t safe. “I think it’s something like 30% of youth who live on the streets report being physically or sexually abused by one of their family members,” Rainwater says. “And so it might be the family member has a drug problem or that they’re abusive. But in some way, shape, or form, it’s not safe anymore.”
And then finally, many youth are homeless because they’ve been rejected or kicked out. “40% of all youth who are on the street age out of foster care,” Rainwater says. “When they turn 18, they’re given half an hour and a black trash bag and told to get their stuff out.” Without help or additional assistance, many of those kids end up on the street. The other big number from that category are LGBT youth that have been kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality.
“45% of all homeless youth who’re on the street are LGBT and were thrown out of their home when they came out to their parents,” Rainwater says.
In their quest to create real change, Rotimi and Vasquez have reached out to multiple politicians about the issue. They know that government funded studies, shelters, and new legislation to help teens is vital in the fight to fix the problem. But they’ve found that, while many politicians expressed a wish to help, they also were hesitant to do so. They said their constituents simply weren’t expressing any interest in the issue.
“It’s a sticky slope because nobody wants to put themselves on the chopping block for this,” Rainwater tells me. “We reached out to 20 or 30 different politicians on both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat. Unfortunately, every Republican would flat out say no (to helping) or wouldn’t return our email or call. But even every Democrat would tell us that it wasn’t that they didn’t wish they could do something. They just didn’t know where to start and nobody was telling them to do it.”
With Lost in America, Rainwater and Vasquez hope that bringing the invisible issue of youth homelessness to light will inform and empower people enough that they will reach out to their representatives to demand that studies be funded to get proper statistics on homeless teens, and that more shelters and resources be made available.
“You can’t solve a problem without studying it,” Rainwater says. “The fact is that with youth homelessness, the national government has never done a study or national study on it. And the government has funded some of the most ridiculous studies in the world. They’ve spent $3 million dollars to study the effects of World of Warcraft on the work environment. But then they’ve requested $3 million to do a national study to find out roughly how many kids are really on the street and how many are in each city and why, and they’ve never funded that.”
What’s both frustrating and encouraging to Vasquez and Rainwater is that a little effort could go a long way, it’s just that so few are willing to take that first step.
“The experts we talked to, they all say this is a fixable issue,” Vasquez says. “It’s just a matter of knowing the problem, knowing how many homeless youth there are, and then funding programs to get them off the streets and into something that will get them back into society. It’s possible.”
In the meantime, people need people to start to care. Something the Lost in America team hopes their documentary will inspire. It’s why they created, WAKE UP, in hopes that they can get people more involved. They’re hoping to hire a big PR firm for the campaign through crowdfunding, and Russell Simmons has signed on to be an executive producer. All of which they hope will get the film a wide distribution so as many people as possible get the chance to see it.
“We want to use this film to start to change things for these youth,” Rainwater says. His dream is that the film will be a force for good. “We don’t want to just come out and be a piece of entertainment. We want to be something that can be used as a catalyst for change. We just need people to start waking up.”
Want to help? You can visit Lost in America’s Indiegogo campaign to financially contribute, spread the word about youth homelessness through social media by posting a photo of yourself with a sign saying, “I am #LostinAmerica, or follow them on Facebook for the latest updates on rallies and events.
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Just wrapped up an interview with Quincy, one of our success stories. During the interview, he decided to show our director one of his meditations. Meditation is what kept him stable while he was experiencing homelessness, an abusive foster family, and a mother that did not want him. This young man is on his way to finishing high school despite all odds. His full story will be covered in our film. #LostInAmerica #Homelessness