Gimme Shelter: The Way Home Chronicles the Root Causes of Homelessness in America

The Way Home chronicles the root causes of America’s current housing crisis. Written and directed by Camille Servan-Schreiber and Don Hardy, the short-form documentary series uses news clips,…

The Way Home chronicles the root causes of America’s current housing crisis. Written and directed by Camille Servan-Schreiber and Don Hardy, the short-form documentary series uses news clips, archival footage, and gritty original material to explore this urban tragedy in four episodes of fewer than fifteen minutes each. 

The first season focuses on California, arguably ground zero of homelessness. It includes shocking shots of ramshackle cardboard and tent encampments beneath bridges, beside freeways and in parks across Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and beyond. Thousands of impoverished people are living in these twenty-first century “Trump-ville” shanty towns, in vehicles or on beaches, desperately improvising to survive.

The series’ first episode, aptly entitled “How Did We Get Here?,” zooms back to the 1980s, during the height of the so-called Reagan Revolution. As Jake Maguire of the nonprofit group Community Solutions points out, the laissez-faire, anti-“Big Government” Reaganite juggernaut drastically cut federal social safety net support.

As a result, Vietnam veterans, among others, began falling through cracks in the system, triggering a housing crisis, according to Jacqueline Waggoner of the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners. Job loss and medical expenses are also cited as among the main causes of homelessness.

“How Did We Get Here?” cites data showing that while African Americans are

only about 12 percent of the population, they account for 40 percent of the unhoused. It highlights the plight of those forced to live outdoors, such as Augustine, a sixty-four-year-old Type 1 diabetic woman with no family, sitting with an unnamed man beside a sidewalk grate, complaining that he’s “starving and freezing.”      

The series’s second episode, “The Most Vulnerable,” focuses on those hardest hit by the housing crisis, including senior citizens, who Bay Area Community Services’ Program Director Daniel Cooperman calls “the most vulnerable community we have.” 

We meet Vernon Boykin, a  seventy-six-year-old African American man living in his car after the Oakland house he’d long resided in was sold, and Diana Lafleur-Sims, a sixty-ish brown Oaklander who says she has been homeless for fifteen years, inhabiting a car with her daughter, who has multiple sclerosis. “Never in a million years did I think this would happen to me,” she says.

 Bay Area Community Services aims at rehousing people in permanent homes; the episode shows one African American woman, Tahon K. Jackson, joyfully rolling around on the carpet of her new apartment.

The third episode, aptly titled “The Invisible,” deals with the stigma associated with being homeless. “People don’t want to look you in the eye,” says one interviewee, Denise Brock, who in her own life went from “eating out of a dumpster” to becoming a caseworker for Flood Ministries, a faith-based organization headquartered in Bakersfield. The episode shows Brock arrange housing for a mentally ill man she knew when she was houseless. 


The final episode of The Way Home, titled “The California Dream,” opens with a long shot of the busy Harbor Freeway slicing through downtown Los Angeles with its gleaming high rises. Then the camera pans to a shot of people living in tents above the rush hour traffic.

“We have not been a region that ever heavily invested in shelter,” remarks Stephanie Klasky-Gamer of L.A. Family Housing, an interfaith group. Of course, there is a direct line from Reaganism to Trump’s deregulations and tax-cuts for the capitalist class. And more recently, the housing emergency has deepened while a real estate mogul resided in the White House at taxpayer expense. 

The Way Home’s first season was shot before the pandemic wrecked much of an already unequal economy and exacerbated the homeless crisis. Millions nationwide now face eviction and of course, living outdoors during a plague intensifies health hazards for those without adequate shelter and medical care. 

On November 25, 2020—the night before Thanksgiving!—California Highway Patrol officers in full tactical gear used battering rams to forcibly evict homeless activists who’d occupied empty state-owned homes in Los Angeles.

I look forward to seeing the second season of this probing series. Hopefully, once Trump vacates 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, things will start to turn around.

Season one of The Way Home opens December 4 on Amazon, Google, Apple TV, and other streaming platforms.


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