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.
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