Raw, emotionally charged and heartbreaking are just a few words to describe a documentary showing what happens when a Midwest city sweeps a homeless camp. “Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness” takes viewers to Davidson Street Bridge homeless camp in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the relationship between city leaders, law enforcement and people living on the street was tense. According to the filmmakers, the camp was organized, well-maintained and had a loyal community of supporters. But campers were pressured to leave when developers become interested in the property.
Director Don Sawyer told this story in film without taking sides.
“‘Under the Bridge’ tells all sides of the story without really being biased and it plays out and people make their own conclusions,” Sawyer said. “If you’re a right-wing conservative that doesn’t think that government has any call to help homeless people, then there’s somebody in there that person would relate to. If you’re a die-hard liberal and think everybody needs to pay attention to this issue, you’ve got that.”
The film shows what life is like in the months leading up to the sweep of the camp in the fall of 2013. Viewers meet many of the camp’s residents who come to live there under various circumstances. There’s Cameron, who has been homeless for more than 13 years; Mr. Prolyfic, a young man who describes his situation as depressing; a woman who is there because she lost her job; and Maurice, the camp’s unofficial mayor.
“They are just good people. Everyday people. People who just need some special attention,” Maurice said in the film. “When they threaten to shut down the camp, they never say that being outside is a bad thing they want to put you different places.”
Maurice, a Black man with long dreadlocks, is the camp’s organizer. He coordinated with service providers to get necessities such as food, clothing and hygiene products to the group. Maurice is unique in that he left a normal life behind and opted for a grassroots effort to help people who are homeless.
“He was searching and found a calling once he got out there and then organized that camp,” Sawyer said. “That was his purpose to help people from that perspective.”
In the film, a man with tears in his eyes shared his desperation: “I’m a human being. I want to go to work. I want to get back on my feet but nobody is there to help.”
The film features Bill Crawford, deputy treasurer of Marion County, who described the situation as “economic apartheid.”
Director Sawyer is an Indiana native who returned to his home state four years ago after living in Los Angeles. The first-time filmmaker worked in the music entertainment industry. After joining a downtown Indianapolis outreach group, he met Maurice and later the group who would become his filmmaking partners. When they interviewed service agencies and law enforcement, the team recognized a gap between the two groups.
“Their take on the situation was night and day, and there was a complete disconnect of reality between the people who were actually living homeless and the city,” Sawyer said. “And everybody was supposed to be working for them.”
One of the film’s significant moments comes during an interview with Sgt. Robert Hipple, head of the Crisis Intervention Team for the police department. He sheds light on a motivation for closing the visible camps.
“In reality some of it is hide the homeless,” Hipple said. “I mean we all know that.” Sawyer said what Hipple describes is happening in cities across the country grappling with how to deal with homelessness.
“In every mayor’s office — legislature, state, even local — is this is a problem we wish would just go away. We’d like to put them somewhere where the people coming downtown to see ball games and go to restaurants don’t have to deal with it because then they won’t come,” Sawyer said. “It’s an economic issue. It’s a quality of life issue for the middle-class and up. We don’t want to deal with these people.”
The local press is also under scrutiny as they cover the story. One of the campers tells a television reporter, “You guys just quote the city, you don’t investigate.”
This experience has made a profound impact on Sawyer’s life. Prior to the creation of the documentary he wasn’t an advocate. Periodically he passed out food and clothing on Skid Row in Los Angeles. He wasn’t aware of the issue of homelessness in Indianapolis. Sawyer is optimistic the average person would not be OK with how homeless people are treated in this country. He said stray animals receive better treatment.
“Once you get to the end of ‘Under the Bridge’ you realize that there’s no excuse for a city to abandon their homeless,” Sawyer said. “Too many people think these people are there by choice or all they have to do is pull themselves up and there’s help available. All of these are not true in a lot of cases.”
Since the film’s release, two campers died and the Indianapolis City Council created a Homeless Bill of Rights. The film was shown at the Housing and Urban Development office in D.C. as well as Harvard University. Sawyer described the documentary as a cautionary tale to educate other cities.
Meaningful Movies: Sustainable Ballard is hosting the showing. After the screening Real Change board member Anitra Freeman and vendor George Sidwell will share stories. Both are members of our Homeless Speakers Bureau. The trailer is available to watch online.
What: Free screening of "Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness"
When: Sunday, Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Where: Royal Drummer Café, 6420 24th Ave NW, Seattle
Law & Disorder: Sara Rankin’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project studies the myriad ways public policy harms homeless and low-income people