By Ariele Vaccaro
While Milwaukee’s homeless began thinking about the winter to come this past week, other residents finally began thinking about the homeless.
As part of Milwaukee Film Festival’s Cream City Cinema series, one former federal agents’ observations of the homeless in her city filled the big screen at the Oriental Theatre and forced the audience to grapple with an ugly and growing truth: homelessness is a huge problem in Milwaukee.
“30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle” is a documentary that spans more than five years as it follows a number of homeless Milwaukee men as they try to get up, then fall down, then try to get up again from a situation even the city’s most powerful and influential are struggling to fix. The film’s first showing took place this past Tuesday evening, the following on Friday. The final showing will be on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 9:45 at the Avalon Theatre.
Director Faith Kohler follows a chronically homeless man and close friend of hers, Harold Sloan, from 2009 to 2015. His life is exactly as the title implies: a seemingly inescapable cycle. The 50-something spends his days and nights fighting drug addiction and trying to survive. His attempts to escape homelessness are heroic, but his falls are painful. Throughout the film, his character becomes a lovable protagonist. I found myself praying that he would win, that he would muster the strength to pull himself forever from the streets, but imagined that the situation looked much bleaker to him than to me. Kohler’s film follows a number of men like Harold. However, each have different stories that catch up at a life under a dock, at an abandoned factory, in and out of jail, or on the steps of the courthouse in the dead of winter. Kohler marries the story with the man impeccably, encouraging the audience to see her subjects as real people with real problems.
The experts Kohler cites – a judge, an attorney, police officers, and city workers – seem to all say the same thing, but in different words: there are not enough comprehensive resources.
At one point, Harold and one of those subjects meet, but it’s not a particularly happy occasion.
Though the film left me feeling empty – not due to a lack of substance on Kohler’s part, but from having had my blissful ignorance stripped away by such brutal honesty – it didn’t leave me hopeless. Kohler makes it clear that she and others’ calls for change are being answered, slowly but surely.
She highlights the County’s new Housing First initiative, which gives homeless individuals secure, free housing along with other wrap-around services. This almost seems like a direct response to one of her endearing protagonist’s comments: shelters tend to boot out their visitors after a certain number of days without offering extensions due to costs.
In June, county officials announced the initiative which would provide housing to some 300 chronically homeless individuals.
Throughout the film, I noticed that Kohler failed to highlight the struggles of homeless women and children. Another audience member brought up my exact concern during a question and answer session.
Kohler answered, noting that each demographic would call for films all their own. I found her response sensible, but would have appreciated some mention of women and children in the chronically homeless community.
To see a problem that is compromising the lives of many Milwaukee residents on screen was, too put it lightly, intense. Though I’ve seen homeless individuals on my way to work, to the coffee shop, and standing outside my office, I realize I have hardly put enough effort into understanding their constant struggle for a livable life.
Kohler’s film is a testament to the power of empathy and how much good can be done when we show love and compassion for our fellow community members, especially those who need our help the most.