A behind-the-scenes photograph from the filming of the documentary “The Will To Change.” (Photo courtesy Mark Locki)

Journey out of homelessness

New Kootenay documentary aims to destigmatize prevailing view

A documentary film produced in Cranbrook has been released, breaking through stereotypes to show how close we can all be to experiencing homelessness, and how the community can help those experiencing homelessness get out of it.

“The Will to Change” is a short documentary film that tells the story of three Cranbrook residents, their journeys of falling into homelessness and making their way back out.

Directed by Mark Locki and Jessica Fong, the film was produced under the auspices of the Homeless Outreach and Homeless Prevention Program, part of Community Connections Society of Southeast BC.

The goal of the film is to de-stigmatize homelessness, and to create empathy for those currently experiencing homelessness in the Cranbrook and East Kootenay area.

Locki told the Townsman that coordinators of the Homeless Outreach program reached out to him last year, when the community was discussing the proposed permanent homeless shelter to be built in downtown Cranbrook.

“There was a large amount of backlash and anger, not just against the homeless population, but against the idea of a shelter going downtown,” Locki said. “The backlash against people experiencing homelessness really affected the program coordinators, and the homeless population as well, when they hear those things about them.”

The Homeless Outreach program wanted to create a documentary that portrays people experiencing homelessness in a different light — a light that’s not just about addiction and crime. As Locki said, “Because there are a lot more factors that go into it.”

The team spent the autumn of 2021 filming.

“We went to the homeless shelter, we talked to 15-20 different people who were experiencing homelessness, or who had experienced homelessness, and found our three participants for the film,” Locki said. “We spent a couple of days with each of them, and heard their stories, and put together this documentary and this campaign.”

Co-director Jessica Fong said that one of the important things that this film achieves is to provide a space and a voice for people experiencing homelessness.

“There are not many people who want to come out and say ‘I’ve experienced this, and I have a story to tell you’. So this film is providing a space for that, and an opportunity for people to listen to someone who has had this experience. Because most people have an opinion about homelessness, but they’ve never really met or heard their stories.”

The stereotypical view of the homeless is one of addiction, mental illness, and crime. Fong says this attitude, this stigma, is preventing people from giving those experiencing homelessness, or on the verge of it, an opportunity to escape.

“When we say that people who are experiencing homelessness are dangerous and criminals, we are pushing them out of society and closing the doors on them. People who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity are afraid of being judged and of asking for the help they need.

“The point of [the film] is to help our community understand that homelessness can be an experience in somebody’s life, but it’s not the end of somebody’s life. People can go through homelessness, and regain housing.”

The participants in the film were able to overcome their situation — experiencing homelessness or on the verge of it — with the help of family and supporting community organizations. And “The Will To Change” explores just how close homelessness can be to anybody.

“There are so many people who are just on the cusp of homelessness, and all it takes is one missing paycheque for someone to be on the streets,” Locki said. “That’s a significant problem in our community as well. It’s not just a mental health crisis, or an addiction crisis.’

“There are people, living in homelessness, who even have jobs,” Fong said. “They are living in their vehicles, living in hotels, or couch-surfing because they can’t afford housing…”

While often addiction can be a factor, it’s not always the cause of homelessness. There are those who are living with a dependency, still working, for instance, but who have lost their job for one reason or another. They are without an income, but the addiction remains.

“Another thing we want people to ultimately reflect on is how we as a society are supporting people to help overcome their situation,” Fong said. “What is our role as a society, as a community? Are we making it easier or are we making it harder? Because the stigma is an issue, and people aren’t aware that it is preventing people experiencing homelessness from reaching out for help and securing housing.”

In the spring of 2020, Cranbrook conducted an extended point-in-time count over a four-day period, that noted a total of 63 individuals identified as homeless — 28 who were sheltered and 35 who were unsheltered. It was a 117 per cent increase from 2018, which surveyed a total of 28 individuals in the first point-in-time count.

“The Will to Change” is a short film — 17 minutes long — but paints a big picture. It premiered online on June 28. A campaign inviting people to watch the film will run on social media until early August. To watch “The Will To Change,” go to the website thewilltochange.ca. It will take you to the film on YouTube.