A new film aims to shatter stigmas around public housing
“We are at home where eyes can’t see. Then how are those without a home, without the four walls that conceal them, the most unseen?”
So begins the thought-provoking documentary Our Journey Home, which screens at the Regal Fenway on June 14. Directed by Patrick Moreau, the film takes a deep dive into the lives, dreams, hopes, and accomplishments of three different families, and offers a rare personal look into public housing and the stigma surrounding it. One family is just moving into public housing, one family is already residing there, and one family is moving out to make room for the next family that needs help.
Behind the film is the ReThink: Why Housing Matters initiative, which seeks to educate and chip away at stigmas. ReThink has partnered with several local Boston housing initiatives to host the film screening as well as a panel discussion afterwards.
Public housing is a major issue all across the country; some 2.2 million people across the US currently live in public housing, though according to ReThink the need is actually much greater. Part of the problem stems from federal funding that has decreased significantly since the Reagan era. Rent-high Boston is no exception, as Mass has also seen a steady rise in the demand for such subsidies, particularly among families.
Despite such need, a negative stigma persists around the public housing issue. Courtney Rice, director of communications at HAI Group, the sustainable housing company behind ReThink, says, “It’s actually quite mind-blowing to see what people really think. They support public housing but don’t want it in their backyard.”
We caught up with Rice and with Patrick Moreau, the director of Our Journey Home, to learn more about the challenges facing public housing, and about their upcoming screening as well. [Ed. note: Interviews were conducted separately, with transcribed answers edited together below.]
Massachusetts has had an increasing number of families in need of public housing since 2008. What factors have contributed to this rise for families in particular?
CR: It’s a national trend. There’s an affordability gap; 60 percent of families are working, but the jobs they have don’t pay enough to afford housing. It’s just not cutting it. For families, unfortunately, the units they require are larger and those are difficult to acquire. The redevelopment costs unfortunately end up being passed on to renters.
It’s also a funding issue from HUD. There have been changes in the way the government views public housing and a lot more funding is going into other areas. There have been reductions of 80 percent in housing budgets in some places. They’re putting resources elsewhere.
The upcoming screening of Our Journey Home is meant to help address negative perceptions of public housing by telling real stories? Could you tell me more about that and what you hope people get from the screening?
CR: There really is a need for public housing, especially in big cities like Boston, but there’s always such a stigma around it: that residents are involved in crime and drugs. That’s not the case. My company has been serving public housing for 30 years and when people use it as it’s meant to be used—as a stepping stone—residents are able to get back on their feet so they can get out of public housing so someone else can move in. The film shows the full circle of a family moving in, current residents, and a family moving out. It opens people’s eyes to who really lives in public housing, not these negative stereotypes you hear all the time. The film makes you look at these people for who they really are: doctors, parents, people in school sitting next to you.
This is why HAI started ReThink: Why Housing Matters. We wanted the American public to see residents for who they really are. This documentary is really nice way to do that. Through these conversations after screenings we see that people really want to help and we’re having great discussions nationwide about what we can do on a local level. Each conversation in each city is very unique as the needs and issues in each city are very different … It’s a very local community type screening and any issues or concerns that people might have, they’re welcome to bring them to the conversation. It’s very nice to have a diverse group.
How does the medium of film add to telling the stories of these individual people and families?
PM: With Our Journey Home you have a very universal experience of something like home that has gone so very wrong for a couple people. What is so critical is to remove the barrier, the distinction in the audience’s mind that “I’m here and that could never happen to me,” to remove the idea that these people are fundamentally different.
To do that we really need you to get to know them. You need to see them as people who have dreams and desires but just ran into problems. One of the base reactions is “that could be me.” It’s very hard to create that same connection in any other way. You’re really there in their lives seeing it. The film can be a very moving moment for people; they are moved to tears by someone else’s life experience.
What do you hope the audience gets out of watching this film and attending the panel discussion?
PM: As a director, what I really hope more than anything else is that people will bring this home and have a discussion with someone and that could be someone on the street who is homeless and they might have walked by and ignored. Maybe start conversations with local government. Or just with your kids or your family about what this means and what we believe and what we value.
How can people get involved in addressing both the need for public housing and the stigma around it?
CR: On the ReThink website we have so much information. Become aware of what the real issues are. There’s a survey every year that publishes housing states, views, and opinions … Contact your local Congresspeople to talk about what is happening in your city or state. Educate yourself; that’s always the first step.