SXSW Review: ‘Community First, A Home for the Homeless’

Rating: 3.5/4

Cards on the table, homelessness is a very personal subject for me. So when I read the synopsis for director Layton Blaylock‘s documentary: Community First, A Home for the Homeless — examining the city of Austin and Alan Graham’s endeavors for combating poverty and helping its transient citizens, I immediately requested a screener for it and I’m so thankful that I did. Community First, A Home for the Homeless is a delicate and lovingly rendered documentary, giving a voice to the voiceless and a spotlight to a worthy and indispensable cause.

The documentary opens with what some may find to be an alarming statistic: “554,000 people were homeless on any given night in the United States in 2017.” They’re homeless for a variety of reasons, but “choosing” to live on the streets or in an abandoned building isn’t a choice. Often, those who spiral into this wretched life, do so because they’ve lacked familial support, experienced a traumatic event, or experienced great loss.

Blaylock’s documentary oscillates between Alan Graham — CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes — explaining the plan for Community First: 27 acres of RV’s, tiny homes, and tepees — and interviewing residents who were once homeless. We trace through heartbreaking stories from people like Tammy, Shorty, Warner, Penney, John, etc. and then examine how we view the invisible citizens of America.

Indeed, Graham recounts how his attitudes toward the homeless changed when his friend Houston took him to meet Marge. At first, he was afraid of Marge, afraid he would catch a disease if he touched her. Often, we also view those living in the streets with the same disgust and fear. We keep our heads down and walk faster when we pass them by. We might donate, but we’d rather not come in direct contact with them; and “we” certainly wonder why they don’t just find a job.

But anyone who has been homeless for any period of time, who has slept in a van or a place without running water, or in a homeless shelter, knows it’s not that easy. That’s why Graham and co’s Community First is so unique, because not only are these once transient citizens given a place to stay, they’re given jobs too. Some farm, some weld, some create art, some are handymen. But each one of them begins to rebuild the years of being told they don’t matter, the years of hurt, the years of isolation, the deep and personal trauma that pushed them to their previous existence. Not only do they rebuild, they build anew — a life of skills and looking forward to the next day, instead of solely trying to survive the current day.

Blaylock’s Community First, A Home for the Homeless should be required viewing for every single person who’s never looked a homeless man or woman in the eyes and never known the hurt contained within them.

An official selection of SXSW 2019

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