In 2019, a new social advocacy drama addressing homelessness and the general public was released in the U.S. The Big Read Documentary Film Screening this week showed this film, “The Public,” on November 5 at the Knickerbocker Theatre. In the approach to educate its viewers on challenging issues, the film addresses poverty, homelessness, mental illness and the importance of being seen. To advocate for a population that often goes unheard, the film demonstrates what true empathy looks like. One could hear a pin drop under the seats as the screen played in the theatre. Eyes were opening to a different way of life and views were expanding. It was as if this film expanded people’s perceptions of reality to an entirely new aspect of society, often not thought of by the general public. The film takes a political stance, which is paired with compassion and the demonstration of shared humanity. Although the film is not made as a true documentary and is considered fictional, it is based off of a true story. In the film, emergency shelters are at full capacity in the city of Cincinnati. A group of homeless library patrons gather in the public library as a peaceful protest to the local government. While escaping near death in the cold front, the patrons refuse to leave the library until they have the whole city’s attention. The film reveals that public libraries are not only places to read, use the computer or meet a friend, but they also provide much needed shelter for many members of society.
After the film, a question and answer dialogue took place within the theatre. Virgina Beard, professor of Political Science at Hope College, shared her response to the film. She specifically studies housing and homelessness in the Holland area. Beard shared with the group the brokenness she sees in the ways that many “middle-class” Americans think by explaining that everyone is born with a different set of options. She emphasized the flawed idea of blaming someone for their lot. Greg Groan, from the Holland City Rescue Mission, shared a bit of his story and the lives of the homeless in Holland. Groan has experienced homelessness himself and advocates passionately for people at risk in our city. Groan compared the situation in Holland to the film based in Cincinnati. He said, “The homeless that I see three blocks away, is not any different.” He went on to explain that the trauma is no different, nor is the loss of jobs or of access to healthcare.
While Holland faces a similar heartbreak in homelessness like most cities, there is a different question being asked here: “What will the college students do about it?” Students are often temporary residents who take from a place and its resources. How can students contribute positively to social advocacy regarding housing and homelessness, instead of just taking up space on the streets, parking spots and eateries? Students walk past the general public and the general public walks past them. There are often different worlds existing in the same space in Holland. Many of the men and women living at the shelter have expressed that they are afraid to go outside in this town because of the way they are looked at by the general public. No one deserves to be seen as an “other.” No human wants to feel resistance as someone walks by. The discussion at the Knickerbocker encouraged a dismantling of the stigma of homelessness and mental illness in our own town. Groan gave encouragement to students in the theater on how to bridge the gap between the college and the streets. He stressed that it only takes one person to do something about this. He agreed that it also takes a government and a city, but it begins with one person saying, “Enough is enough.” He shared one of his favorite saying, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” Who is better fit to build relationships than a college student? Students may not have extra change or funds to spare, but they do have a moment in their day to look someone in the eyes and smile as they pass by. Students have a moment to reach further than what might seem “necessary.” Instead of assuming what someone needs physically, it is best to assume everyone can use a friend. Humanity is worth it. We are worth taking the time to acknowledge one another. Groan expressed the importance of experience over knowledge. He said, “You don’t know until you experience it.”
After the film, he invited any and every college student to come spend time at the Holland Rescue Mission to grow in acceptance and compassion. If you are interested in learning more about homeless in Holland and what you can do to help, contact the Holland Rescue Mission by visiting their website, www.hollandrescue.org or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.