When New Jersey City University students Gerald Cameron and Felix Rodriguez were told to find a solution to an urban problem as part of an urban politics class, they didn’t have to go far for their subject matter.
“We decided to look at homelessness,” said Cameron, an NJCU junior and political science major. “The original idea was to look at homelessness in the different wards in Jersey City to look at the different levels of poverty. We wanted to see how homeless people in Ward F were different from homeless people in Ward E or Ward A. So, it was going to be a comparative research project.”
Cameron and Rodriguez envisioned themselves going from one end of the city to another talking to various homeless residents about how they wound up on the streets to get a glimpse of how homeless life differed across the city. What they discovered, however, was a homeless migration that led straight to Journal Square.
The homeless community that has in recent years grown up around the Journal Square transit hub is perhaps becoming one of the most researched, most written about homeless populations in the region. Perhaps because this community is a community, and functions as such, Journal Square’s homeless have been the subject of academic research, news articles, and now a film.
‘We were able to get a unique look at homelessness all around Jersey City.’ – Gerald Cameron
The film, which can be seen on Vimeo.com, is a compilation of interviews with various homeless people who discuss their lives and reflect on the charitable and government agencies that work with them.
Rodriguez, an NJCU senior and media arts major, had the task of filming the movie’s subjects while he and Cameron shared the job of conducting interviews.
“I tried to remain as neutral as possible,” said Rodriguez. “I tried to not to interfere or take what they were saying out of context with editing. Their stories were compelling in themselves. So, there was noting I had to do to make them any more compelling than they already were. Their stories were very real and very emotional in themselves and that’s really what drives films like this.”
As a media arts major, Rodriguez has already completed a few other films and said he prefers the documentary genre to narrative movies.
On a documentary like “Homeless, Not Helpless,” however, he acknowledged that establishing trust with the people who were interviewed was sometimes difficult.
“Establishing trust wasn’t always easy. It was actually challenging at times,” he said. “We shot the film over a few days spread out over several weeks. We got lucky at first that people were willing to share their stories with us. But then, some weren’t. Over a period of time we kept going back and we kept talking to them without actually interviewing them. A few eventually let down their guard and began to talk to us on film.”
The documentary was filmed last November and Rodriguez edited the material in December. He said he recently “revisited and tweaked the film with fresh eyes.” The students released the film this month and it has been shown at a few events around town over the last two weeks.
A citywide look
Ironically, even though the focus of the students’ film shifted away from a look at homelessness in the different wards, they gathered some interesting information on differences, nevertheless.
“We shot a lot of our footage in the Square. What was interesting is we found out a lot of information about the other wards,” said Cameron. “We found a few individuals who were from, like, Ward F but they moved to the Square area because it was safer than being homeless in Ward F.”
In Ward F, he added, drug and alcohol abuse appeared to be contributing factors to homelessness, whereas in Ward E and Ward A, homelessness seemed to result more from the loss of a job or a divorce.
“It was interesting that we were able to see some of that just by going to the Square,” Cameron stated. “The homeless from every ward seemed to be centralized in that area. So, in the end, we were able to get a unique look at homelessness all around Jersey City.”
Both students said their work on the documentary – and the people they interviewed for the project – have shaped their post-graduate plans. Rodriguez, a Bayonne native who will graduate from NJCU next month, is planning a career as a cameraman. Already he is working on a feature-length film based on one of the men he met through “Homeless, Not Helpless.” Cameron, who hails from Jersey City, is planning to attend the seminary after graduation and hopes to work with a faith-based institution that offers direct aid to the homeless.
Perhaps one of the most compelling interviews in the film comes from a man who has been homeless for many years. A Jersey City native, the man moved to California for a time, but eventually returned east to live on the streets of hometown.
“He still admires Jersey City,” Cameron said. “He thinks this is the best place in the world. He thinks there’s no other place he would ever live. He admires the diversity. He admires the people. Even though he’s homeless and he can’t reap the benefits of the [larger] community, he stills feels he has a place in Jersey City.”
To view the documentary “Homeless, Not Helpless,” visit http://vimeo.com/39680237.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.