“Try to figure out how to stay alive” from Apollo 13, or “But this ain’t about success. This is about survival” from New Jack City. The movies are full of advice or inspiration for how to survive in life-or-death situations, after all nothing makes for a better action film than when the stakes are at their highest. A great story will stress its characters to their breaking point and push them further than they think possible before finally resolving the conflict and returning our heroes back to stability. Real life, however, is not like the movies. In the real world, life can push you past to your breaking point, it can continue to pile challenge after challenge on you until it feels that the odds are impossible to overcome. Unfortunately, often times there is no climax in our challenges after which we are guaranteed a solution. Just ask our friends who have been affected by homelessness.
When you lose your access to stable, long -term housing you are forced to focus on one thing above all else - survival. Before you can rest, plan, process what you’ve been through, recover, or even take stock of your situation, you have to survive, and survival is often all there is time for. When every moment of the day and every ounce of your energy go into just getting by you end up exhausted, overwhelmed, hopeless, and sometimes further from the goal than when you started. In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace declares “Every man dies. Not every man really lives." That is what being stuck in this cycle of perpetual stress, crisis, and trauma for months, or even years can feel like...not really living. It’s easy to see how you might start to lose a sense of who you are beyond the struggle, or your belief that things can change. Luckily, the movie Good Will Hunting reminds us that “Some people can’t believe in themselves until someone else believes in them first.”
If this were a movie it would be a boring and depressing one. We wouldn’t want to watch our protagonist go through the same motions, only to stay in a constant state of stress and conflict. If the story doesn’t change, if a new element isn’t introduced to shake things up and redirect the narrative then we start to lose hope that the plot will go anywhere else. According to the film, The Shawshank Redemption “Fear will keep you prisoner. Hope can set you free." For our friends on the streets, this hope...this much needed “plot twist”...can take a very simple form, but make no mistake it plays a pivotal role in shifting our storyline. It may show up in an unexpected interaction with someone who values them when they feel unseen and forgotten. It may be a favorite meal, not served out of a brown paper sack, but at a kitchen table by someone who cares if they enjoy it. Or it may be a day at the movies with friends, a few hours to eat popcorn, enjoy good company, and imagine a life beyond simply surviving. Perhaps Dumbledore said it best in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Some will argue that money spent on treating our unhoused friends to the movies is money wasted. Is this worth the time, the money, the effort? Isn’t it simply a “fun outing”? What good are we really doing here? But just like in our favorite movies, real people (housed or unhoused) aren’t flat, one-dimensional characters. People come with likes, dislikes, passions, and backstories. We benefit from spending time with each other, from being able to find commonalities and a sense of community together. A shared experience, especially a positive one, can go a long way in building a relationship. In the movie Who Framed Rodger Rabbit? it is said that "A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it's the only weapon we have.” A day at the movies (or bowling, a special meal at a restaurant ...) may be a luxury, but human companionship should not be. Unfortunately, it’s that connection that is often lost when someone is experiencing chronic homelessness. “No man is a failure who has friends." according to the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Life is just easier with an ensemble cast. Sometimes the fuel for monumental shifts is built up and stored over lots of little moments in which we can view ourselves somehow beyond the immediate crisis. In the romcom You’ve Got Mail it’s described as “All this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings."
Not all movies are great, and we don’t always get the happy ending we hope for. This is also true of people. It would be ridiculous to imply that by a couple of hours in a theater and a bucket of popcorn will solve all the problems of someone experiencing homelessness.
That’s not the goal. Simply put, by allowing people a break from focusing solely on survival and letting them engage in something life giving with a community of friends, we are hoping to set the stage for change. Before we, as human beings can work towards a better life for ourselves, we have to be able to imagine that it is possible and feel that we have the community of support we need to create The movie A Beautiful Mind seems to sum it up perfectly for us “I need to believe, that something extraordinary is possible.”