A focus on the 'houseless'
By STEVE PERSALL
Published February 9, 2007
Stephen Ashton and Andrew Lee spent about a year gathering footage for the film Easy Street.
Andrew Lee's daily runs took him along St. Petersburg's waterfront, past clusters of homeless people sitting on cardboard with their lives in backpacks and the prettiest view in town. He wondered who they were, how they sank to such lows in such paradise.
Two years ago, Lee, 27, was a University of South Florida graduate producing commercials, museum programs and training videos, sharing a goal of making a feature-length documentary with his employer, Stephen Ashton. St. Petersburg's homeless population became their subject, a tour of urban poverty ironically titled Easy Street.
Ashton and Lee's documentary was completed a few weeks ago, before homelessness in St. Petersburg became front page news. The timing couldn't be better, offering topical insight into people who aren't always as hopeless or helpless as they appear.
Easy Street will be shown at 10 a.m. Saturday at Studio@620 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $5; a portion of proceeds goes to local homeless support agencies.
Ashton, 52, owns Multimedia Productions, a visual arts studio five blocks away from one of the homeless enclaves dotted with tents. He had all the tools necessary to make a movie. What he and Lee needed first was the nerve to enter an insular society of possibly desperate characters.
Carrying digital video and audio, the partners approached their first subject, a weathered man exploring a garbage bin for supplies.
"We were both pretty cautious and weren't sure exactly what was going to go down," Lee said.
That first encounter set the tone for most of Easy Street's production: someone with an interesting story, pleased that anyone would take time to listen. Ashton and Lee spent nearly a year in St. Petersburg's alleys, parks and homeless aid centers collecting 40 hours of footage, without politicians or authoritative talking heads getting in the way of the stories.
One word continually heard from interview subjects is "houseless" to describe their condition, rather than homeless.
"They feel they're part of a loose-knit community," Ashton said. "It isn't like they don't have a home; their home is kind of where their friends are, where they hang out."
A telling distinction
The filmmakers learned to distinguish between types of homelessness.
"The homeless are ones who fall through the social net and hit the ground with a thud, lose their houses, lose their jobs. There are programs in place that these people eventually find and it helps them get back on their feet," Ashton said.
"On the other hand, chronically homeless are the ones who can't seem to help themselves get off the street. Those are mostly the people we ended up following throughout the film."
Easy Street focuses on five people of varied backgrounds. Among the most interesting is G.W. - most folks are identified only by first names - a college graduate with English and philosophy degrees who was convicted of manslaughter. His criminal record makes job-hunting difficult, but G.W. finds work with a telemarketing firm, washing in a Williams Park restroom and changing into clean clothes so co-workers won't know he's homeless.
Peg is a woman knocked around by several boyfriends; Patrick is pleased to be an alcoholic because that's the only way he feels good. Jaime is a single mother of two who uses the system to get housing, food and clothing while coping with an abusive mother.
Crossing the line?
Each has a particular physical or mental health issue that the system can't always cover - sometimes because the patient refuses to cooperate. That's the case with Karl, a 19-year-old with bipolar disorder who neglects his medication.
Karl brought out Ashton's best instincts as a human being and his worst as a documentary filmmaker. During a rainy Christmas two years ago, Ashton found Karl living among garbage cans and offered him temporary residence in an empty office.
"Was it unprofessional from a documentary filmmaker's standpoint? Probably so," Ashton said. "I remember telling my wife that there's this kid who I don't think belongs on the street. I just felt he was too young, too naive. If anybody had a fighting chance of getting off the street it might be him."
Ashton still believes Easy Street is a balanced portrait of people like Karl whose attempts to better their conditions stall, if they begin at all.
"In fact, we were very worried when we finished it that people would think we somehow exploited houseless people with the film. We didn't try to be sympathetic or critical. We saw people who in spite of themselves just couldn't seem to improve their lives.
"We always hoped in the end that at least one person would beat the odds and give the film a happy ending, if you like. Unfortunately, none of them really did."Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
10 a.m. Saturday at Studio@620 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. $5. Web site: wideyedfilms.com.
[Last modified February 8, 2007, 11:05:55]
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