It’s rare that Hollywood highlights homelessness in any meaningful way. So when it does, I feel compelled to learn more. I’d read reviews of “Time Out Of Mind”, the film directed by Oren Moverman starring Richard Gere, and frankly, I was a bit skeptical. The thought of watching Gere play a homeless person for two hours wasn’t appealing. During the film shoot, a passerby had thought that he was actually a real homeless man and gave him a slice of pizza. That was major news and the subject of many talk-show interviews. But I decided to see the film anyway, and I decided to invite two Real Change vendors, Tracey “Katmondu” Williams and Susan Russell, to come along with me.
Tracey and Susan are both activists at Real Change, both have been homeless and both regularly share their stories to educate community members and elected officials about the realities of homelessness. They are members of our Vendor Organizing Committee and our Homeless Speakers Bureau. They are smart, perceptive and brutally honest, so I wanted to see what their reactions would be to the film. We watched it together at Varsity Theatre in Seattle’s University District. Then, we sat down and talked for a while. We talked about homelessness; we talked about scenes in the movie, but mostly we just talked about how it feels to be treated as less than human. Because, other than not having a place to live, that’s what the experience of homelessness is, and that’s what the film captured so powerfully.
What are your initial thoughts after seeing “Time Out of Mind?”
Tracey Williams: It shows some portions of homelessness, but I don’t think it really, really shows a lot of the struggle that people have. When you’re on the street, you have to find a way to make some kind of money to get something every day. I didn’t see any reflection of that.
Susan Russell: I agree. You have to find a way to make money every day, but also, you pack everything you own on your back. And you have to worry about food; you have to worry about where you’re going to sleep if you don’t choose a shelter, and it is exhausting. He only carried around a little plastic bag and coats.
Were there things that you liked about the movie or that resonated with you?
TW: The shelter. It was really like that in the shelter. You have to worry about people messing with your stuff and people bothering you, constantly talking. And [staff] act like they don’t want you there when that’s what they’re there for. They act like they don’t want to help you. They act like they don’t want you around.
Could you talk more about that scene?
TW: It was the part when that lady was asking him about identification. “Okay, your wallet was stolen … you don’t have anything to prove who you are?” You’re asking me the same questions; look, ma’am, I have no address. I’m on the street. You’re constantly asking me the questions, and you get frustrated. I mean, you get angry. You’re constantly asking me the same thing; the answer’s not gonna change. I don’t have ID; I don’t have a place to live. I have none of the things that you need for me to get ID. How can I go about getting those things? That’s what you’re here for, to help me.
You’re talking about the scene where he’s trying to get services but he doesn’t have his Social Security number or state ID?
TW: Right. I mean, you can know your number all day but without that card, it’s nothing.
SR: Yeah, you can never get anything. When I had all my identification stolen, you can’t get anything without identification. It’s frustrating as hell.
Were there other scenes that resonated?
SR: Well, there’s no way that anyone’s gonna let you sit around a restaurant or anything unless you’re buying something, plain and simple.
There was a scene in the movie where George, Richard Gere’s character, says to his friend: “We don’t exist.” Did you ever feel that way?
TW: I feel that way now. I actually feel that way now just because people see me selling Real Change. People walk by me right now and will stand three feet from me, and I’ll say hello to them and they’ll look at me like I’m invisible, look straight through me. I don’t understand that.
SR: I still have that. I still, you know, I say good morning, have a nice day. A lot of people just don’t even look at me; they don’t even acknowledge that I’m even there. I try not to take it in and have it hurt me personally, but it bothers me.
There’s a scene where he asks: “Am I homeless?” Did you ever ask yourself this question?
SR: I denied it. I was in such denial. I knew I was, but I just could not accept it. And that’s kind of how he was. He just really didn’t accept it mentally.
When did it sink in?
SR: The first day I sold Real Change. Yeah, that was my public statement being homeless. I had to stand there and actually be visually accountable for that.
TW: It didn’t hit me until when I was sleeping in my car, and I had nowhere to go take a shower. I didn’t know about the resources then. I would go to public parks, early in the morning when they open them up, and I would have to take a “bird bath” because I didn’t know anything. I mean, I never denied it. I just wasn’t going to give up.
SR: I had way too much shame. I didn’t want to be stereotyped. I didn’t want to be labeled. I hid it from everybody I could. I would go to a Goodwill container after it closed, because people would still dump clothing after hours. So I could change my outfit. I knew where to get food out back of a store. And I did the “bird bath” thing for forever.
What happens once you’re labeled as homeless?
TW: Well, actually, I didn’t really worry about the label. I’m a black man, so I’m stereotyped anyhow. I’ve been going through this for my whole life. I just didn’t want to be seen as a bum. I honestly never cared about what people thought about me personally, all I wanted was respect.
SR: Well, I just felt like your chances of jobs and everything are just … you’re beyond limited.
You know, once somebody knows that you’re homeless, to try to get a job or anything, they’ll take anybody else besides you. Anybody. I just didn’t want that in people’s minds when they met me. I was humiliated enough in my own mind without having others humiliate me even more. And the invisibleness, yeah, I’ve sat many, many, many days wondering why people wouldn’t talk to me, why they wouldn’t look at me. The scene [in the film] where he started playing the piano … you forget after a while who you are; you forget your talents; you forget your dreams, because it’s dehumanizing to be homeless on the street. That scene where he played the piano just made me think of all my talents that I’m now realizing I have. I just forgot about them because you have to work so hard to survive that you forget a lot of who you really are.
TW: One of my favorite moments when I was homeless was in 2013. It was Veteran’s Day, and I was in [the] Nickelsville [tent encampment]. I told people the day before, I said, look, I’m taking Monday off. We’re gonna barbecue, I’m gonna cook for the whole camp.
We got together and that was the one day that I actually felt like a chef again. I had 14 slabs of ribs, and I cooked for the whole camp. Everybody enjoyed it. My passion has always been cooking, and that was the one time that brought me back to me being me. Other than that, I was just the guy who sold papers and lived in a tent.
There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about people who are homeless. Do you feel this film challenged some of them?
TW: Not enough. It’s four times worse. I’ve been walking down the street and had people throw stuff at me. I’ve had bricks thrown at me. I’ve been threatened. I’ve been told I couldn’t go places … they make it as rough as possible, they make it as hard as possible. There’s nothing for you: no love, no concern, you don’t exist. When you are homeless, you are a criminal. For what reason, I don’t know.
SR: Oh, it’s way worse [in reality]. You’re picked on. You are put in a category that is separate from the mainstream. You’re shoved off to the side, and the world just keeps on spinning, and you’re over here wondering why you can’t be connected.
Is that something that you yearned for, that connection?
SR: Yeah. I came really close to completely giving up. Really close. When you lose hope, it’s like an aggressive cancer and you die. You have to come back, and you have to love yourself enough to fight for your existence.
TW: That’s why a lot of homeless people self-medicate, because they don’t exist to society.
What do you think was the intended message of the film?
TW: I think it was just trying to show a day in the life of a person who’s on the street.
SR: Yeah. You get into a routine. The routine doesn’t get you out of being homeless, but it gets you surviving. Like, being a female, when you got a period, who’s gonna help you? I knew what building I could get into that had those kind of products sitting out in the bathrooms. I would just go down to the parking garage, and I’d go up the elevator and I knew which floor had the bathroom that had what I needed and didn’t have a locked door. You just know where you can get this or that, where you can get free coffee or tea, and then you get in that survival mode and you don’t get out of it.
TW: I’m in a place now, but I’m $665 from being back on the street. So in my mind, I’m still homeless, but I’m inside. Until I have something that says, “This belongs to Tracey Williams,” I’m not secure. I don’t feel no stability right now. I mean, I’m good. But on the street, it’s rough. And it’s hard on a man … I can imagine it’s even three times as hard for a woman, because it’s much more dangerous for a woman.
SR: Oh, yeah, it’s dangerous. That’s why I hid. You become a target to be raped, robbed, whatever. And when that does happen to you, you blow the whistle and you’re dead. There’s a street code out there that you put up and you shut up or you’re gone.
A lot of people don’t realize how close they are to homelessness. Did you ever think you would be homeless?
TW: I never thought I’d be homeless. I got too many skills in life, too many different things I could do. But I never thought I would have arthritis in my hand, either, which is now why I don’t really look for a job; because of my lack of physical ability, I don’t have much, but I’m the richest man in the world, ‘cause I got people that care about me. I’ve made friends when I was on the street that I still have now. They did things to try to help lift me up, which I appreciate to this day. But did I ever think I would be on the street? No.
SR: I never in a million years thought I’d be homeless. I had too many things I did. I did landscaping. I was a cement mason. I did not plan for that thing around the corner — an accident — I didn’t plan for that. I was in hot pursuit of the American Dream and boom, I was rear-ended by an uninsured motorist. I was severely injured, and my trade was gone.
What do you want people who haven’t experienced homelessness to know?
SR: It’s dangerous.
TW: We are people. We’re not lazy, we’re not drug addicts, we’re not thieves. We’ve fallen on hard times, some because of health, some because they lost their job.
SR: Or an accident.
TW: My ex-girlfriend ran off with two months of rent, and I got evicted. That’s what first put me on the street.
I mean, anybody, the average person in America could be homeless at any moment. The 1 percent, never, but the rest of us, at any moment, could be on the street.
SR: Yeah, all it takes is an accident, a health problem, loss of a job. But we’ve got another thing going on … this high rent. It’s going to create a huge homeless number that we never expected. There’s just no housing. There’s got to be a major call to action.
Why do you feel it’s important to tell your story?
SR: I tell my story hoping that no one will ever have to go through what I’ve gone through.
TW: I just want people to open their eyes and realize that we are all people. I tell my story because I want to educate you on what it’s like.
How do we humanize homelessness?
TW: Talk to a person. Get to know somebody.
TW: That was the best thing that I can say has happened to me. People have come up to me and asked me, “So what is your story, and how did you end up on street?” I don’t mind telling people. If people want to know, I’m gonna tell you. This is what happened, this is what I’ve done in my life, this is what I’ve done over my years. I’ve been an executive chef, back chef, sous chef. I’ve been a welder, a forklift driver, a landscaper, did all kinds of things and they’re like, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do all that.”
SR: It’s so brutal when you’re homeless. You’re so broken and beat down and you’ve lost hope. We cannot be out here on the street, defending ourselves, with the sleep deprivation, the years of sleep deprivation I had … I was tired.
TW: And frustrated.
SR: There was that part [in the film] when George said, “I’m tired.”… I’m tired. Boy, I tell you, when he said that, that just hit me.
Should people see the film?
TW: Yeah … It’s an interesting movie. I actually think it is a good movie; it was done well because it’s not really a story line, it just shows a man going through a struggle. And if they see that movie, they’re only going to get the tip of the iceberg of what it’s really like, but they’ll see what we really go through and then see why.
SR: I think that everyone should go see the movie. It will give them a sense of what it’s like to be homeless and the challenges.
It doesn’t show the depths of the violence that you endure, but it will hopefully, after people see it, it will open their minds to where they’ll get involved on some level to help with this crisis that we’re having and just realize that we’re all human.
When you get involved to help on some level, if you’re talking to your [elected] representatives or if you’re just donating your time to a nonprofit that helps the homeless, it will change you. It will make you a better person.