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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, November 2nd, 2019

Documentary Reviews: “Guest House”, “John Mendez: The Bridge”, and “Faith in Action”

Seat­tle’s annu­al Social Jus­tice Film Fes­ti­val was held about a month ago, from Octo­ber 3rd to 12th, and had the theme of “Courage.” On Fri­day, Octo­ber 4th, they showed the fea­ture length doc­u­men­tary “Guest House” and two shorts, “John Mendez: The Bridge” and “Faith in Action,” fol­lowed by a short pan­el discussion.

Screened first were the two shorts.

John Mendez does street out­reach to peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness in Mont­gomery Coun­ty, Mary­land. The film bear­ing his name fol­lows him as he meets with peo­ple, giv­ing out food and socks in all weath­er, includ­ing snow.

Mendez is a vet­er­an of the Unit­ed States Marines.

He served in Africa while the Rwan­dan geno­cide was hap­pen­ing, but troops were nev­er deployed to Rwan­da to do any­thing to stop the slaugh­ter. Today, wit­ness­ing the short­er lifes­pans of peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness, he sees the apa­thy towards home­less­ness as a slow geno­cide unfold­ing before our eyes.

Mendez also talks about the need to change peo­ple’s ideas and under­stand­ings about home­less­ness, to get peo­ple to real­ize that “it does­n’t need to be that way.” Home­less­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the large scale we are see­ing it in the U.S. today, is not inevitable, and in fact it is only since sev­er­al pol­i­cy and fund­ing deci­sions dur­ing the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion that home­less­ness became the every­day occur­rence it is today. Bad pub­lic pol­i­cy cre­at­ed home­less­ness, and good pub­lic pol­i­cy can solve it.

“Either you are choos­ing to gov­ern prop­er­ly and end home­less­ness, or you’re not,” says Mendez.

The sec­ond short film shown was “Faith in Action,” about events host­ed by var­i­ous church­es and reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions in the Atlanta area, in part­ner­ship with the Ful­ton Coun­ty gov­ern­ment, to help peo­ple expunge crim­i­nal records that are hold­ing them back.

Crim­i­nal records, even just hav­ing arrests on your record not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­vic­tions, can make it hard for peo­ple to secure employ­ment and hous­ing. Near­ly one in three Amer­i­cans has a crim­i­nal record, and the state of Geor­gia has one of the high­est rates of incarceration.

“When we should have invest­ed in peo­ple, we invest­ed in pris­ons,” says the Rev­erend of Ebenez­er Bap­tist Church, best-known as the home church of Rev­erend Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.

“The ten­ta­cles of mass incar­cer­a­tion are stran­gling our community.”

The church has pro­vid­ed space for the expunge­ment events.

It is “mak­ing grace real and lit­er­al­ly chang­ing lives,” says the cur­rent Reverend.

He says their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the events is part of the “spir­i­tu­al lin­eage of Mar­tin Luther King that ties faith to free­dom fighting.”

These expunge­ment events allow peo­ple to com­plete a process that nor­mal­ly takes 120 days in just a few hours. Expung­ing records for peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions that qual­i­fy reduces recidi­vism by reduc­ing barriers.

Stud­ies in states that allow such expunge­ment have proven as much.

Also involved in the events are The Tem­ple, a Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion. The rab­bi quotes the Torah, “Jus­tice, jus­tice shall you pur­sue.” He notes how this state­ment makes clear that jus­tice does­n’t just hap­pen, “we have to make it happen.”

After watch­ing these two short films, the fea­ture-length “Guest House” delved deeply into the sub­ject of addic­tion recov­ery and rein­te­gra­tion after incar­cer­a­tion. Guest House is actu­al­ly the name of a pro­gram for women in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. area, and the film pro­files three women who are in the res­i­den­tial pro­gram and work­ing hard to get their lives mov­ing in a new direction.

Guest House is actu­al­ly just the first phase of the six-month pro­gram. Res­i­dents spend about two months at Guest House, then four months at Sheffield, an apart­ment build­ing where they live more inde­pen­dent­ly with room­mates from the pro­gram. After Sheffield, there is also an option­al eigh­teen month fol­low-up program.

They serve about two hun­dred women per year, and demand for the pro­gram is so high that they turn away over fif­teen women for every­one they enroll in the pro­gram. Their pro­gram mod­el is high­ly suc­cess­ful, with only a ten per­cent recidi­vism rate among their clients.

While in the pro­gram, the women go to recov­ery class­es every­day, which often assign home­work for women to fur­ther explore their addic­tions. They also have class­es at the house, such as yoga, knit­ting, and self-defense.

Guest House residents

Grace and Sele­na, res­i­dents of Guest House fea­tured in the film of the same name

One of the res­i­dents fea­tured in the film is a young woman named Grace. She became addict­ed to opi­ates after she sus­tained nerve dam­age in her hand and was pre­scribed painkillers after surgery. While at Guest House, she talks about need­ing to find a job that pays enough to actu­al­ly cov­er all of her expenses.

In the past when she has got­ten clean, she has strug­gled to get work that pays enough, lead­ing her to start sell­ing drugs to make ends meet, and then she has start­ed using drugs again.

Anoth­er res­i­dent fea­tured in the film is Maddison.

She dis­cussed how being in jail is not ben­e­fi­cial, in terms of mak­ing life bet­ter, oth­er than detox­ing off drugs while there.

Mad­di­son was aban­doned by her par­ents at age nine, her adop­tive fam­i­ly was abu­sive and she found her birth moth­er again at eigteen. Her moth­er used drugs, and Mad­di­son start­ed using with her.

Guest House helps women to con­nect to employ­ment and edu­ca­tion, in addi­tion to their oth­er pro­gram­ming. The clin­i­cal direc­tor talks about how their pro­gram empha­sizes love and accep­tance, along with account­abil­i­ty. Res­i­dents need to feel like they are in a safe enough space to unpack their emo­tions, past trau­mas, and face things. Grace dis­cuss­es how she is get­ting used to feel­ing emo­tion­al pain, some­thing in the past that she always numbed with drugs.

Grace and Mad­di­son both found jobs and moved to Sheffield, then after com­plet­ing the pro­gram, they moved togeth­er into an after-care facility.

Pro­grams like Guest House prove that peo­ple can be suc­cess­ful in addic­tion recov­ery and re-entry to com­mu­ni­ty after incarceration.

Guest House — the film — is cur­rent­ly on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit and also being shown at oth­er re-entry pro­grams, said Han­nah Dweck, one of the direc­tors of the film, at a pan­el dis­cus­sion after the film. Dweck said when they have shown the films at oth­er pro­grams, peo­ple have said they see them­selves in the sto­ries being told, and it makes them feel like they aren’t alone and that they are seen.

The pan­el was mod­er­ate by Mar­cy Bow­ers, Direc­tor of the Statewide Pol­i­cy Action Net­work at Sol­id Ground, one of the spon­sors of the fes­ti­val. Along with Dweck, oth­er pan­elists were Mike Kuba, direc­tor of “John Mendez: The Bridge,” Tim Har­ris of Real Change News, and a vol­un­teer from Books to Pris­on­ers.

Bow­ers asked Har­ris about his thoughts and insights on the con­nec­tions between incar­cer­a­tion and home­less­ness. Har­ris not­ed that the tra­jec­to­ries of mass incar­cer­a­tion and home­less­ness are sim­i­lar, with rates being low in the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s, then grow­ing in tan­dem since then.

Now, about one in one hun­dred Amer­i­cans expe­ri­ence home­less­ness, while the same ratio of Amer­i­cans are cur­rent­ly incar­cer­at­ed. Both home­less­ness and mass incar­cer­a­tion are embed­ded in insti­tu­tion­al racism and inequal­i­ty, Har­ris not­ed. While that may make the prob­lems seem insur­mount­able, the films just viewed show that peo­ple can make a dif­fer­ence, he said.

“Guest House” does­n’t have any more screen­ings sched­uled after Octo­ber, but groups inter­est­ed in host­ing a screen­ing can get infor­ma­tion on the film’s web­site.

“John Mendez: The Bridge” is avail­able to watch for free on Vimeo.

“Faith in Action” can also be viewed on Vimeo, and there is also a web­site for the expunge­ment cam­paign that includes a toolk­it for peo­ple that are inter­est­ed in plan­ning an event in their community

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