On Monday, a bulldozer at a NoMA encampment clearing picked up a man who was still inside a tent, reminding housed residents about the unsafe conditions unhoused folks face. As City Paper reported, the incident heightened concerns about how Mayor Muriel Bowser and District officials are running homeless encampment clearings throughout the District. On the heels of the event, City Paper took a look at how District residents who have experienced homelessness own their stories of struggle and empowerment. One such story is chronicled in the upcoming D.C.-based documentary Street Reporter, slated to screen in the District later this month. Co-starring Street Sense Media photojournalist Sheila White and SSM reporter Reggie Black, the doc follows White beginning in 2019, as she returns to school in her late 50s and pursues her journalism dreams while staying at a women’s shelter.
City Paper talked to the film’s director, Laura Waters Hinson, an assistant professor of film at American University, about the initiative. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Washington City Paper: How did this project come about?
Laura Waters Hinson: At American University, I lead something called the Community Voice Lab, a project at the university to connect our student filmmakers with storytellers in the D.C. community. In a lot of documentaries, filmmakers come in, and they extract the story, and they leave, and then they never have a connection back to that community again, and the film goes out. And those people who told the story feel disconnected. So that’s the inequity that can result.
As a part of that work, I got connected to Street Sense, which I had known about, as I lived in D.C. for almost 20 years. I’ve always loved the mission of Street Sense, and my producer, Bryan Bello, helped start something called the [Street Sense] Filmmakers Co-op. We pitched this idea of doing a collaborative film with some of the storytellers from that project at Street Sense. At the time—and this is still going on, as you know—the issue of the encampments in the NoMa neighborhood was a huge issue. So the editorial team at Street Sense wanted to follow the story of the encampment, as told through the eyes of people who have experienced homelessness.
WCP: How did Sheila [become the protagonist]?
LWH: Our team decided to follow along with the [Street Sense] reporting teams, reporting on the reporters, as they were covering the issue of tent cities and encampment. The film evolved because in the middle of production COVID hit, so we ended up having to pivot the story. And in the end, we ended up focusing on the story of Sheila White as a female aspiring photojournalist, and who’s, through her dream of photojournalism, also finding a way out of homelessness. It’s a really hopeful story.
WCP: What is it about Sheila that makes her relatable?
LWH: Sheila is an incredibly resilient person who defies a lot of stereotypes of what people assume about people who are experiencing homelessness. And I think she’s a person who’s gone through so much in her life, and yet she has a humility and an optimism about the future. That’s really infectious, you know, a very humble, authentic person who is not going to give up. She’s not in this for glory. She’s not in this for fame. She’s hard-working, and she’s got a goal and a dream, and she’s going to make it happen. You root for her, you want her to succeed. By the end, I think people fall in love with her when they see her story and her commitment to her future.
WCP: What was the training [like for these SSM first-time actor-filmmakers]?
LWH: We did some workshops during their filmmakers’ meetings, and we would go over sound or we go over framing, but a lot of it was done in process. We would be filming them, and then we would be explaining what we are doing, involving them throughout the process, even into the edit. I worked with Sheila to record narration with me: It was like, ‘OK, we need to connect these dots, how would you say, how would you connect to these two parts of the story?’ Sheila and her [reporting] partner, Reggie Black, were recording on their iPads the whole time, and she was taking photographs as well. You see it through our lens, but you also see it through Sheila’s lens and in Reggie’s lens—we incorporated their footage into the film.
WCP: What do you hope the audience will [take away from this story]?
LWH: I want this to challenge people’s perception of people who are experiencing homelessness, and to allow them to tell their story in their own words. I want to build a sense of empathy. We can’t get jaded, we can’t lose our human connection to people because we see them lying on the street. I’m not trying to say that every person that you meet on the street [is] just like [Sheila]. But I think that it’s easy for those of us who have not experienced homelessness to just judge people.
And then I hope that it’s inspiring to anybody who may be facing difficulty in their life, and to see the way that somebody like Sheila’s not gonna give up. You know, she’s been through some extraordinarily difficult experiences in her life. And she’s moving forward, she’s making changes in her life, and she’s got a future that she’s excited about. That’s universal, when you see somebody triumphing over the challenges they’ve experienced.
WCP: What do you think have been some of the barriers that don’t allow some folks to empathize with people experiencing this kind of struggle?
LWH: I think that some people see this issue as so complex that they kind of lose hope. When people walk by a set of tents, we feel overwhelmed, we don’t know what to do. The way people handle not knowing how to help is they have to shut their hearts off, because it’s overwhelming. We feel powerless. I hope that the film helps people to see that there are incredible opportunities and ways that people can get involved.
WCP: Like what?
You can get involved with Street Sense, or a network of street newspapers all over the world that are run, or are primarily written by, people experiencing homelessness. They are creating opportunities for people experiencing homelessness to have a voice, and to report on the issues facing them. But they also provide job training, because they’re training them in writing, photography, filmmaking, and editing, and they’re developing skills that then ideally will lead to employment. They’re also selling the paper, so for many people, it’s their primary source of income. One of the smallest things you can do [to help] is buy a paper from one of the vendors on the street corners in downtown D.C.
Learn more about how to watch the film here.
This article is part of our 2021 contribution to the D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.
To discuss further, you can also join the public Facebook group, “#DCHomelessCrisis Solutions” or follow #DCHomelessCrisis on Twitter.