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Jennifer Lystrup, a teacher of social justice at Christian Brothers High School, tackled the ongoing issue of homelessness among youths in her first documentary, “Beautiful Youth.”
“Beautiful Youth” chronicles the individual stories of several homeless transition-age youths – youths between the ages of 18 and 24 – in Sacramento told in their own words.
“A lot of them were optimistic or at least willing to try to talk about what’s going on. They want to be heard as much as anyone else,” said Sonny Iverson, lead outreach worker for Wind Youth Services. Wind is one of the few programs in Sacramento that deals with ties between homelessness in youths and sexual trafficking of minors.
The 47-minute film provides the youths’ perspectives on their situations, substance abuse in the homeless community, the circumstances that put them there, goals they have set for themselves and their reflections on how society responds to the issue of homelessness.
Many programs available to the homeless population are geared toward chronic homelessness – those who have been homeless for more than a year and have a documented disability – adults ages 30 and higher, or youths with mental illness.
Accompanying the youths’ stories are reflections that expose the lack of resources available to transition-age youths from Raven Hoopes, program manager and case manager for Harm Reduction Services; Michelle Lopez, lead outreach coordinator for HRS; and Iverson. All were previously homeless at a time and are now working with support organizations for teens and young adults.
The problem with so many homeless youths, Lystrup said, is “if they don’t get some sort of help (during the transition age), they will become a homeless adult.”
“When the average person hears about youth homelessness, they’re thinking children and kids on the street and it tugs on a person’s heart. But when you’re talking about an 18-year-old, all of a sudden, people’s minds are really different, and it doesn’t matter,” Iverson said.
Filming for the documentary began in May 2010 and was completed last November.
Lystrup “started out wanting to do a film on labor trafficking,” she said, so she went to WIND Youth Services to get some ideas for her film. She got the idea to do a film on transition-age homeless youths after meeting Iverson.
“Sonny started talking about homeless kids and what happens to them as they get on the street,” she said.
As the lead outreach coordinator for WIND services, Iverson knew many homeless youths in Sacramento who lived by the river, in tents under bridges or have been raised out of a car since they were early teenagers after their families lost their residences.
Iverson became Lystrup’s guide to the homeless sector of the city, and found a handful of youths who were willing to tell their stories on camera. He wanted to help “because of the nature of my job and my involvement with the homeless community,” he said. He also had a personal motivation to be involved in the documentary.
“I personally saw it as an opportunity to expose the lack of transition age services,” Iverson said.
Iverson was homeless for a period of about 10 years, when he was of the transition age, in many different cities. He said that compared to other cities, “Sacramento was one of the places where (for a homeless person) it’s not wise to be visible; it’s less acceptable to be seen.”
Both Lystrup and Iverson agreed that many of the youths interviewed were not homeless by choice.
“It’s easy to look past the face and assume everyone who’s homeless has made that choice. Most of the ones I spoke to – it wasn’t their choice,” Lystrup said. Some of the stories told by some of the youths were very compelling, she added.
Some of the youths tell stories of sexual or substance abuse, harassment and rape at home, which drove them out of their houses in the first place.
One teen said he has been homeless since he was 11 years old due to abuse from his mother’s boyfriend. Others became homeless early on with their parents when they were still too young to understand the difference between being homeless and camping out.
Another young man interviewed in the documentary mentions leaving an abusive household and living out of a car with his mother and brother while going to school.
“What happens to the young person who is living in a tent with their family, and they have to get up every morning and they have to move their tent?” Lystrup asked.
A young man named Paul from the documentary describes the reluctance for many to leave their campsites for long: “If you go to work every day of the week and you come back and your tent is gone and your blankets are gone you have nothing,” he said.
“If they’re being moved out, they’re trying to go to school, and they don’t have computers and they don’t have all that most kids would have? You can see why many of them don’t necessarily finish school, and when they do, it takes them a lot longer,” Lystrup said.
The first-time filmmaker said that the reason many youths can’t pull themselves out of their situation is a lack of resources available to them and their age group.
Describing the Salvation Army shelters as full of homeless adults, Iverson said, “There is no attraction for young people that are homeless to get out of their situation.” It’s important to have something for that specific age group, he added.
A young man in the film says he would rather hang out at the river with his friends and have his freedom rather than be confined to a small bed in a crowded shelter.
Lystrup said she’s sent her documentary to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office and advocacy groups, and has given it to the youths who participated in the documentary and to people at both Harm Reduction Services and WIND Youth services. But she has not received any feedback from the city.
Sacramento City Councilmember Angelique Ashby and Mayor Johnson’s office could not be reached for a statement.
“I wasn’t interested in making a lot of money, I just wanted to get the issue out,” Lystrup said, adding that the most important thing for her was “to let people hear their stories.”
The film was titled “Beautiful Youth” “because youth should be a time of wonder and awe and beauty, and I still think after meeting these young people that they’re beautiful. Their wonder and awe was a little bit more difficult, but they’re still beautiful,” Lystrup said.
“They really are people just like everyone else,” Iverson said. But Sacramento puts more energy into sweeping it under the rug than finding a solution, he added.
“I really understand that people have compassion fatigue: There are so many issues out there. I get that,” Lystrup said. "Some people are really devoted to a certain issue, but you can’t really go anywhere in Sacramento and not see the disenfranchised.”
“I want them to see it because it’s really relevant. It’s not a problem, it’s an issue that’s not going away,” she added.
Currently working on two new documentaries – an avant garde film and a labor trafficking film – Lystrup said she is hoping to get a free public screening of her documentary at the Guild Theater in Oak Park in September or October and is still trying to get the City Council’s attention on the issue.