When I was about seven years old, I remember driving to my best friends birthday party with my mom. I was riding in the backseat and we were already running late. As we inched our way up La Cienega approaching Santa Monica Boulevard, I saw a mother and her two children on the sidewalk. They sat on a blanket, their backs perched up against a wall. Without understanding how or why, I knew that they were homeless.
This image was unnerving and disturbing. It broke my heart and shattered something innocent and pure within me. While I didn't understand why they were out there, I felt instinctively that it was wrong. This feeling of injustice that swelled inside of me was the moment I came to my own understanding of homelessness.
I burst into tears immediately, and asked my mother to turn around. I told her that I wanted to go home and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the family and bring the kids some of my toys. My mom couldn't argue with that, and so we made a U-turn and headed back home. The joy and excitement I felt making those sandwiches and gathering toys from my room was unlike anything I had ever felt before.
Now, as a young woman, I look back on that afternoon as a seminal moment in my life. It was the first time I can remember being struck by injustice and feeling compelled to take action. Seeing that family living out on the street unraveled and opened up a part of my heart. I felt myself fill up with questions, answers for which I have been searching for ever since.
At the time I too was just a child, and I couldn't understand what separated me from the kids living on the street. Why did they sleep on the cold, hard cement, while I slept in a warm, cozy bed?
In my heart I knew that there was no difference between us, that as people we were all the same. And yet while I had grown up with a roof over my head, food to eat, protected by the love of my parents, those children were on the other side. The questions I grappled with then I still grapple with today.
Years later, as I began documenting homelessness as a young woman, the image of the mother and her children still haunted me and, the questions kept coming. As an adult, I now had the intellectual faculties to understand the social, political and economic factors that lead to poverty, and yet that was not enough.
Amongst all the interviews and all the people I was speaking to in my initial months of filming, I never once came across any homeless children. I thought that this was strange since my first memory of homelessness involved young children, but I proceeded with my filming and spoke to anyone and everyone who would talk to me.
But after some time I began actively searching for homeless children to speak with. I knew they were out there, but I had no idea where to look and it became a bit of a mystery to me.
Several months later I found myself filming in the Skid Row area. For reasons of practicality and safety I based myself out of The Midnight Mission, a shelter for recovering homeless men on Sixth Street and San Julian in downtown Los Angeles. Eduardo Castro, who had been a resident of the Program there, became my friend, my chaperone and my protector as I navigated the new and overwhelming terrain of Skid Row. He knew this world and guided me through it with paternal love. I had told him that I was anxious to speak to homeless children and families. He suggested we go into the playroom of the Midnight Mission. Sure enough, when we walked into the playroom I found what I was looking for.
There were two families, and a total of five children. Three of the children were under the care of their stepfather. Their mother was no longer in their lives due to her drug addictions, and they didn't know where their biological father was. Despite all of this they seemed truly happy.
Their innocent demeanor was tainted with the kind of maturity inevitably acquired when you don't know where you will sleep that night or where your next meal will come from. They spoke very eloquently about their situation and were painfully aware that they needed to get off the streets and find a home.
Through circumstances of living in shelters in the Skid Row area, they had become friends with Thalia (the girl wearing the pink shirt in the video below) who was nine at the time. Within moments of being in the playroom, the children began performing a song for me. They explained that it was something they had written themselves.
Their song (featured in the video below) and their band were called "The Sister Girls" and the song describes their unique sisterhood. Even though the four girls were not all related by blood, they stuck together. These girls had formed a new kind of family.
I was so profoundly moved by their hopeful song, their creativity and their beautiful voices. Despite the harsh realities these children were facing and the amount of innocence they have been deprived of due to their circumstances, they were filled with light and song.
Children should never have to be consumed with issues of basic survival. They should not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or if they will even eat. They should not have to think about where they will be sleeping from one night to the next. But these children did not waste time feeling sorry for themselves. They had instead developed a collective love and compassion for one another.
Nearly twenty years after seeing that homeless family on the street, I had expected to feel nothing but despair and heartbreak upon my next encounter. I did not expect to walk away feeling so uplifted and filled with hope and happiness. Listening to them sing reminded me that happiness is not defined by our situations, but by our state of mind and our will and desire to overcome. I am still filled with questions and my heart still aches for the children around the world who go without food, love and shelter. But I am also filled with hope and joy to see children transcend their pain, through art and song.
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