A new documentary, premiering this year, aims to shed light on the difficult realities that nearly 2 million homeless youth face in the United States. When filming began seven years ago, “American Street Kid” was intended to be a short public service announcement.
“We need to wake up America and show that there are 5,000 kids that die on the streets per year in the country,” said Writer/Director Michael Leoni. “Thirteen kids die every day. Most people don’t know that.”
Leoni nearly became homeless in New York several years ago and began talking to different kids living on the street there. He was inspired to write a play, “The Playground,” to share their stories. He showed the script to Producer Michelle Kaufer in Los Angeles, and the play ran successfully in Los Angeles. Leoni wanted to make sure that homeless kids were part of the play and that they were able to attend and weigh in on whether the issues were being portrayed accurately.
Two teenagers that attended the play were both murdered after Leoni got to know them, which drove home just how dangerous it can be for anyone living on the street, especially young people and children. Searching for a way to take action, he and a small crew went to Venice Beach to interview homeless youth and make a two-minute PSA.
But what he found was too complex to convey in two minutes. Leoni started following and spending time with kids on the street, trying to find services to help them and even bringing some of them into his home.
“I think a lot of people think they’re punks, they don’t want to make money, they don’t want to be here,” Leoni said about the kids in the film. “We’re all human, we’re all one… we want people to really know they can do something about it. It’s easy to get involved and not to be scared and really wake up.”
Kaufer said the goal of the movie is to shatter the public’s misconceptions about homeless youth: that they are rebels, punks or drug addicts. “When people see this movie, what we hope they come away with is that they understand that these kids have been abused and abandoned,” she said.
Through filming and reaching out to organizations in an attempt to get the help the kids needed, Leoni started to see the difficulties kids on the street go through daily. “He was met with so many obstacles and waitlists and just madness,” Kaufer said. “The holes in this system are just huge and I think when you see the movie you’ll see a lot of what Michael learned basically by throwing himself into the fire. He learned by experiencing it.”
The negative experiences Leoni had with safety net programs led he and his team to found a nonprofit called Spare Some Change, so that they could use the first-hand knowledge they gained to make a difference for homeless youth. The organization provides mentorships on film sets, helps kids get off the streets, provides counseling, conducts job trainings, creates PSAs and more.
“We lived it, we saw it, we know first-hand what they need and that’s why our program is different,” Leoni said. “The biggest thing is you have to focus on the individuality of each kid. You have to really focus on what each kid’s needs are, and that’s what our program is about.”
Many organizations give homeless youth material things that they need — which are all important — but do not necessarily help them on a deeper level, according to Kaufer.
“Unless you’re going to help that human heal, you’re not really helping them,” she said. “When the shit hits the fan, that kid is going to go back to what’s familiar to them, and for the most part, that’s the streets. If you really want to help a kid get off the streets, you have to deal with the underlying issues. You have to convince them that it’s not their fault and that they can be loved and give love.”
Both Leoni and Kaufer have seen terrible things such as kids contemplating suicide, drug addiction, prostitution, abuse, rape and even death. But, they have also seen love and compassion through the process of making “American Street Kid.” They have seen a kid graduate high school after being on drugs since he was 8 years old. They’ve seen kids go from the street on to college, full-time jobs and rehab.
“The movie takes you on a journey… it’s like a rollercoaster ride,” Leoni said. “The main thing is hope. It’s all about hope and change.”
“American Street Kid” is officially premiering at The Beloit International Film Festival: Feb. 28 – March 4 and then at The Hollywood Film Festival: March 29 – April 2. The film will be in theaters later in 2017.
You can learn more about the project’s progress and additional screenings at www.AmericanStreetKid.com.