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America down and out

Ramita Navai’s Unreported World television documentary, USA: Down and Out (C4, June 25, viewable online) gives a shocking insight into poverty in the United States.

We’re in Chicago, where a church is giving out food to the new poor.  Many of those queuing are in work and have taken huge pay cuts, typically up to 40%, in desperation to hold onto their jobs.  “Did you ever think you’d be standing in a queue for food?” Navai asks.  None of them did. 

One woman, a mental health professional, can’t survive on her wage of $24,000 a year.  “I work 7 days a week,”  she says.  Because she earns over $900 per month, she doesn’t qualify for the federal government’s food programme, so charity is her only option. 

Over 37 million Americans receive either state or private food assistance, twice the number two years ago.  Almost 500 families receive food charity every week at this one church alone.  Father Matt Eyerman, whose St Columbanus church runs the ‘food pantry’, says:  “We’re stretched to breaking point.”  There are 600 similar soup kitchens across Chicago.

Homelessness in the US has risen sharply, with over 3 million people losing their homes last year.  Many of these people are still in work.  Like the food pantry, charity-run homeless shelters are struggling to cope with the numbers of new arrivals.  The Breakthrough Urban Ministry shelter in the south of Chicago can put people up for 120 days at a time, but after that they must find somewhere else to stay.  Yolanda Fields, who has worked there for 7 years, says these shelters are overwhelmed as the homelessness epidemic gets worse.

Many people don’t want to talk about their situation, and have not told friends and families.  One man, Carl Felton, who ended up in the shelter when the company he worked for as a self-employed chef went bust, is willing to speak on camera about his experiences.  He had to ride the bus all night from one end to the other for warmth, he says, or nurse a cup of coffee in a 24-hour McDonalds.  “We are in a state of survival,”  he says.  “I want to live one day again.  This isn’t living.”  He weeps as he describes the hardest thing about being homeless – having nowhere to call your own, having to “stand in line to take a shower, stand in line to get something to eat.”   

Over half of all people living in shelters are victims of bank repossessions, which soared as the foreclosure crisis hit 3 years ago.  800,000 homes were repossessed by banks last year.  Community leader Mike Reardon takes Navai round his patch in south Chicago.  Hundreds of boarded up houses and flats, perfectly good housing stock, stand empty. 

In Nashville, Tennessee, homeless people have taken refuge in 40 tent cities throughout the city – a situation replicated in most American cities.  Most tent cities are illegal but are tolerated as their numbers have grown.  The tents here have their own makeshift heating and water – they’re permanent dwelling places.  There are tables of food like open fridges in the wintry weather.  The camp is situated beside the railroad track and under a motorway flyover, a constant, deafening presence.

One resident, Brian Raddy, has been homeless for two months and has been travelling the country looking for work, after he lost his job in grocery retail.  “There’s tent cities everywhere,”  he says.  “I don’t understand why America’s the way it is today.”

Other residents, Stacey and Michael Farley, have been on a waiting list for social housing for a year.  Most cities have waiting lists of up to 5 years.  “Nobody deserves to live like this,”  says Stacey, who’s been forced to leave her children with relatives as tent city residents do not allow kids. 

Women and children are the fastest growing group of homeless people.  In Nashville, there is only one emergency shelter for families.  If they can’t get a place there, homeless families are split up.  Cassandra, one of the shelter children, says she didn’t tell her friends she’d been made homeless because it made her feel sad.

Cassandra and her brother have often gone hungry.  “How did it feel, that hunger for so long?”  Navai asks.  Cassandra’s brother turns away to stop his tears:  “I felt like I was going to die.”  Across America, 14 million children are going hungry, and over 1 million are homeless.

In California, with the US’s highest debt and deep cuts in welfare, LA’s Skid Row is home to at least 2000 rough sleepers, though one local activist puts the number at 5000.  It’s violent and crime-ridden.  One interviewee tells how he lost his job in Detroit and headed to California for work.  He now sleeps on the streets of LA.  He has a job, sleeps rough and goes to the gym for a shower every morning before his day’s work.  His first night on the street was very tense.  “You’ve got one eye open,”  he says.

Joe, a Vietnam vet and trained therapist, tells Navai there are many educated rough sleepers like himself, people with Masters degrees and doctorates.  Because it’s illegal to sit or sleep out in daylight, homeless people are forced to spend all day on their feet or be charged with loitering.  People are criminalized for not having any where to go.  “You no longer have citizenship.  What you have here is victims,”  says Joe.  Though the area has been swamped with police, the problem of homelessness hasn’t gone away.

Lanny and Marilyn Henry’s home east of LA is being repossessed by the banks after they failed to make remortgage payments.  They have 3 weeks to move out, and have not yet told their children.  They don’t know where they’re going next.  He says:  “I felt like a failure.  I felt like I let them down.  I promised her this was going to be your dream house and we were going to die here.”

It’s estimated that more than one and half million US citizens will be forced into homelessness over the next two years.  With unemployment at 20%, having doubled in two years, and strict criteria for welfare – no benefits if you’re a part-time or temporary worker, or self-employed – the future is stark for millions of Americans.

This campaigning programme suffers from dramatic ‘live’ camerawork and an over-emphatic interviewing style:  “So Mike, … how many familes, just on this corner, have lost their homes?”  This is unnecessary when material is this disturbing and powerful in its own right.


The documentary can be viewed online here.