WASHINGTON (CNS) — A new independent movie, “The Florida Project,” aims to show the life of people whom director Sean Baker calls “the hidden homeless,” as they scratch out a hand-to-mouth existence paying rent in cash weekly in motels along the U.S. Highway 192 strip between Orlando and Kissimmee, Florida.
In Austin, Texas, the city’s homeless are both less hidden — and less homeless — through the efforts of Community First! Village, an initiative founded by a Catholic man, Alan Graham.
“The Florida Project,” named after the below-the-radar land acquisition scheme by the Walt Disney Co. that resulted in the creation of Walt Disney World, shows the travails of desperately poor people who lean on each other to get through the week until their own social fabric begins unraveling.
A couple of scenes show a church van pulling up to one of the motels with volunteers handing out bread, pastries and other baked goods. Young Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), who seems to be barely school age, stocks up on bread and Danishes, sharing her love of the treats with her pals in a style reminiscent of “The Little Rascals,” albeit in some scenes with behavior more crass – and grown-up language far more vulgar — than Spanky and the gang ever displayed or heard during the Depression.
Those scenes may have been modeled after Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the Community First! food truck. But while the organization still makes daily food and clothing runs, it has branched out far and wide.
The cornerstone of its current efforts is Community First! Village, a collection of RVs, mobile homes and “tiny houses” that shelter 300 people split about evenly between the formerly homeless and Community First! volunteers and “mission residents,” according to Ed Travis.
Travis is the group’s community cinema director, which he said was one of “a lot of ways of creating dignified work opportunities for formerly homeless residents. This community cinema is an outdoor amphitheater where we’re generating our own events that are open to the public.”
In September, the amphitheater hosted a preview screening of “The Florida Project,” which includes Willem Dafoe in the cast.
“All of the events that I do, I am encouraging and welcoming our residents to come and attend,” Travis told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 4 telephone interview from Austin. “I had some brief interactions with some of our residents who responded very positively to it. But I will say from watching the film … we definitely did see a pretty strong dose of reality in the movie. He (Baker) did a really good job of portraying life on the edge of homelessness.”
“My hope is that the audiences will take this (movie) home with them and think about the real Moonees, the real Haleys (Moonee’s mother) and think about it long enough so that they’ll feel connected with them,” Baker told CNS in an Oct. 3 telephone interview. “Look: This isn’t just a Kissimmee, or Orlando problem, it’s a nationwide problem and it may be happening under you noses and you don’t even know about it.
“I live in Los Angeles. We have a homeless issue. We certainly do. But with the hidden homeless, it’s happening in San Bernardino, the O.C. (Orange County, California, a well-to-do L.A. suburb) Chicago, Boston, New Jersey,” Baker continued. “Hopefully, it inspires people to help to want to change, help agencies, organizations that are actively providing social services. Not only to homeless populations but to be motivated to reach out to your local government. It (‘The Florida Project’) is a call to action but not in a way that hopefully scares audiences away.”
Other Community First! projects include an art house program (“there’s a lot of creativity on the street,” Travis said); a farm garden so residents can grow their own food; a hosting program that allows volunteers to “pay” to work on the farm under the supervision of residents; and even a blacksmithing forge to make products that can be sold at the village’s market. Travis added there’s talk about starting an oil-change and auto-detailing shop so visitors’ cars can be serviced while they visit.
“The sky’s the limit,” Travis said.