When making a documentary, one rule stands above all others: don’t get involved.
For producer and director Michael Leoni, however, that was simply impossible. Having narrowly avoided being a homeless teenager himself, his documentary project “American Street Kid” hit too close to home. When tragedy struck his subjects, Leoni couldn’t remain a disinterested observer. He had to help. With his team, what began as a documentary to highlight the plight of American students living on the streets became a movement.
Leoni was introduced to a world of homeless teenagers after nearly becoming homeless in New York at age 19,.Upon moving to Los Angeles, he staged a play called “The Playground” to tell the stories of these youths and open the eyes of the community to what they experienced. Leoni also invited local homeless teens to these plays, which he staged at least once a year for six years. Two young homeless girls, 15 and 18, attended his shows. They’d both turned to prostitution to survive.
“We really connected to them,” Leoni said, “and wanted to be part of the project.” When both girls were murdered — one in a hotel room and the other in an alley — Leoni decided to spend a weekend filming street kids so that these stories could be more widely told in the form of a short public service announcement.
Photo: American Street Kid promotional poster
“Two minutes,” Leoni said, “turned into seven years.” The result was “American Street Kid” (focusing specifically on eight kids) and a movement for change.
“We met the kids and we started documenting their lives and a bond grew between us, the production crew and them, and the rest is history,” Leoni said. “It became so much more than making a film, this is ‘how can we get these kids off the street and what do these kids need?’”
The team created Spare Some Change “to engage, enlighten, and empower homeless youth to create change in their lives and to provide direction toward a stable future.” The Dollar Project is a related campaign to raise just one dollar from as many people as necessary to support both the film and the Spare Some Change Initiative. Producer Michelle Kaufer said that the organization was begun because “in our efforts to help kids get off the streets in those seven years, I think we got a bird’s eye view of where the holes are in the system.”
While there are a lot of holes, the most important to them is “addressing the healing of the kids.”
“They were feeding the kids or giving them clothes, but they were missing the point of looking at them as individuals,” Leoni said.
“American Street Kid” will have a theatrical release, as well as a national tour where it will be brought to organizations and educators to “ignite a conversation” to make more citizens and schools aware of the issue of homelessness among youths, Kaufer said. By breaking the rules, this documentary could have the power to create more change.
“A lot of documentaries just show the harsh reality of what’s going on out there, and it turns a lot of people off,” Leoni said. “Our movie is intense and rough and it shows what’s going on, but then we offer what can be done, and we show these kids as people. Our goal is really to show the hope and show the love. We are really about the hope and the love for these kids and that is what our movie shows, and it shows what can happen with love.”
For so many of these kids, they have been abandoned so “they create these families on the street.” Through this organization, they hope to create healing and mentorships that will get to these root issues to prevent kids from running away and going back to the familiarity of the streets.
The Spare Some Change program has two key elements. The first is the mentorship program, which Leoni describes as “AA meets Big Brothers Big Sisters.” The second is the Change House, a two-year program healing kids and helping to launch them into back into successful independent living.
In the end, Leoni said, it’s about seeing and loving each kid as the person he or she is. “You see an addict who’s been doing drugs since he was ten because his dad was giving him meth and you’re going to look at that kid and go ‘well, he’s not worthy.’ Well, why don’t you have a conversation with him and talk to him and really get to know who he is? He’s a kid who wants to go to massage school and now has his own apartment.” He went on to say that the smallest connection can make a big difference.
“I think the most amazing thing we’ve experienced is, you know, you talk to a kid on the hill for five minutes and I remember him but not really, and I didn’t spend much time with him, and he writes to me three years later on Facebook and says ‘that conversation on the hill changed my life, I just want to let you to know I have my own apartment, I’m sober and it was all because of that five-minute talk.’ And that’s all we’re talking about. Just look at them as individuals,” Leoni said.
Kaufer said it’s all about connections. We think about the people we know in our daily lives “and we all have this underlying knowingness that somebody loves us, and that’s not something you put a label on every day, you just know it…. when you know somebody loves you and is going to be there for you no matter what, it’s deep inside of you, this knowingness that you’re always going to be ok because of that, and that’s something that is really missing in these kids’ lives, and we want to change that.”
Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.