Hidden in plain sight
In 'Invisible Young,' Bainbridge Island filmmaker Steven Keller documents the lives of homeless youth
Jaclyn left home at 14 because she couldn’t tolerate the physically abusive, alcoholic life she experienced there. When she slept under a bridge, she realized the area was cleaner than her house, which teemed with rats and roaches because her mother was a hoarder. But as a homeless teen, Jaclyn learned that a personal lack of hygiene provided an unexpected benefit: “I purposely don’t go take showers because if you smell bad, the chances of you getting raped on the streets are a lot lower.”
Jackson became homeless at 18, two years after he began using heroin. He thought if he hopped trains, he could leave the drugs and the scene behind. One day after drinking, a friend of his decided to hop on a train near its front end. When Jackson poked his head through nearby bushes, he saw his friend’s dead body draped over a chain link fence. The train had plowed into him. So Jackson learned hopping trains didn’t release heroin’s grip on his life: “It ended up making it worse.”
Unlike Jaclyn and Jackson, Bainbridge Island filmmaker Steven Keller never experienced homelessness. And even though he’s lived in the Seattle area for more than a decade, he didn’t always comprehend that some of the kids he saw were homeless. In a way, homeless youth had become invisible to him. “We tend to look away and not see anything at all,” he said.
But in 2010, while mulling over ideas for a new documentary, he visited YouthCare, a local nonprofit that provides services such as housing and employment training to homeless youth age 12 to 24. He read a memoir written by a formerly homeless young man. Drawn to the young peoples’ stories, Keller thought that if he could capture the experiences of local homeless teens, it would make for captivating cinema.
Keller began documenting the experiences of homeless and formerly homeless young people in January 2011. Eighteen months later, he finished “Invisible Young,” a 75-minute, low-budget documentary that chronicles the lives of the people he met. Jaclyn and Jackson star as two of four main subjects. Parts of their stories can he heard on the film’s trailer, viewable at invisibleyoung.com.
As the parent of two boys, ages 7 and 11, Keller said he felt compassion for the young people he encountered. And he found it tough to accept that children and teens are on their own. The film, he said, tries to answer a central question: “How did these kids wind up on the streets?”
Finding answers in stories
Almost three decades ago, another filmmaker asked a similar question, searching for an answer along similar streets. In 1984 director Martin Bell released “Streetwise,” a documentary that follows several homeless Seattle teens. The film grew out of a 1983 “Life” magazine article on Seattle’s homeless youth, which featured photos by Bell’s wife, Mary Ellen Mark. “Streetwise” earned a 1984 Academy Award nomination for best documentary.
Before Keller could attempt to make his own film, he needed to find homeless youth. So he spent three months hanging out in teen shelters and places where young people congregate. “I needed to sort of establish a street cred,” he said.
His street journey led him to Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS), a nonprofit on Capitol Hill with a mission to empower homeless youth. PSKS director Elaine Simons suggested Keller consider Jaclyn, a PSKS program coordinator, as a potential subject. Jaclyn agreed.
By then, the word had spread: Keller wanted to make a documentary on homeless youth, and he needed participants. Shortly after meeting Jaclyn, Keller said he received an email from a young woman named Rachel. After a short pre-interview, he filmed her for close to three hours, an initial process he followed with nearly everyone. Rachel told him that she became homeless at 13. Her grandfather had sexually abused her, Keller said, and when police arrested her grandfather, the family fell apart. “She bore the brunt of that,” he said.
Keller spoke with more young people, who were either homeless or had been, including Jackson, the train hopper. He also met Michael, who entered the foster care system at 5, after police arrested his parents on drug charges. As his 18th birthday approached, Michael knew he would have nowhere to live as a legal adult. In the film, he reflects on that awareness: “I’m about to be like one of these winos with nowhere to go. And then what?”
With four major subjects in place — Jaclyn, Jackson, Rachel and Michael — and other youth in secondary roles, Keller committed to hanging out with them, sometimes recording their lives. By the time filming began, the four principals ranged in age from 19 to 25. But their memories were fresh. And some of their adult-age experiences were graphic. Keller said the film depicts someone injecting heroin.
Keller said he found it impressive that the young people spoke openly about their lives, the good and the bad. It became apparent that each homeless teen had a different path to the streets, a story that, once told, helped them feel more visible. “It’s human to want to share that sort of stuff,” Keller said, “when you have [it] inside you.”
Raising funds, finding focus
It’s also normal for a filmmaker to want to share his work with viewers. Keller screened “Invisible Young” in Friday Harbor in October and will show it in mid-November in Charlottesville, Va.
After the film wrapped up in the summer, he contacted six local nonprofits that assist homeless youth, offering film screenings as a hook for a group fundraiser. Staff at PSKS, the drop-in shelter where Keller met Jaclyn, took the lead in organizing the event. Screening dates were set for mid-October.
But early last month, Keller sent an email to likely attendees: The nonprofit leading the fundraiser was “in the midst of an unexpected financial crisis.” With PSKS facing potential closure, the screenings were postponed.
Keller said while it may seem ironic that a fundraiser was canceled because the lead organization was short on funds, in truth, the events might have drawn only 200 people paying $25 each. Any money raised would have been split among six nonprofits.
PSKS Director Simons said canceling the fundraiser might have been a mistake. After all, news of the drop-in center’s fiscal woes might have turned the screenings into sold-out events. The remaining nonprofits have yet to announce November screening dates for a joint fundraiser.
But Simons said she made no mistake trusting Keller. From the moment he approached her with the idea, she said she found him authentic, and he respected the young people he met. His film, she said, shows what life is like for today’s homeless youth. “It’s important,” she said, “to put a lens to what’s going on out there.”
Keller said he found making the documentary rewarding. He developed positive relationships with some of the young people, and invited several to visit his family on Bainbridge. From his viewpoint, Keller said nearly all the young people involved in the project seemed transformed by the time filming had ended.
Jaclyn said viewers of the documentary will be the ones transformed. By showing different stories, the film challenges perceptions that homeless youth are lazy, worthless and don’t want to get jobs. “My story tells people the opposite of what they think [homeless kids] are,” Jaclyn said.
While making “Invisible Young,” Keller said one the film’s four principal subjects was still on the streets, two were transitioning out of homelessness and one had housing. By the time he’d finished the film, life had improved for three of the four, which pleased him. He said he wanted the movie to be honest in exploring how some kids became homeless, but he also wanted to offer viewers something positive: “So it does have an uplifting ending. I promise.”
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