It's said that one of the best ways to understand anther person's point of view is to walk in their shoes. That's what a documentary titled In My Shoes is trying to do, as it explores the issue of teen homelessness in New York City. The young filmmakers use media activism to mobilize other young people around the United States to end the plight of homeless teens.
Clevins Browne, 19, has vivid memories of being homeless while trying to attend school, do homework assignments and deal with the pressures of being a teenager.
"It was that combined with 'how can I get a meal at night?' or basically, if I'm going to have a roof over my head," says Browne, who lived on New York's streets with his mother for most of his life. For him, being homeless was not an excuse to fail but rather a motivation to succeed.
"It did make things more difficult, but I didn't really want to give up," he says. "This [being homeless] gives me more reasons to really succeed."
Surviving homelessness, Browne says, was a tough battle, especially since he was fighting it all alone.
"I didn't want to discuss this with my friends or teachers because I felt that they didn't really understand, and, they would judge," he says. "I was pretty much wrong about it. I did open up with my teachers, I did open up with other students, and they were actually a lot more helpful than I believed they would be."
Browne is now open to sharing his experience of homelessness with teens everywhere. He is part of a team of young people who are creating a documentary, titled In My Shoes.
"The main purpose of our documentary is to bring awareness to youth homelessness," he says. "I personally feel that the reason why nothing is being done about youth homelessness is because people don't really know that it actually exists. People don't believe that it's a real problem."
The film project is sponsored by the Urban Arts Partnership, a community group that encourages students to use art to address social issues.
"Our goal is to use the arts to wake people up," says Phillip Courtney, the group's executive director. "The kinds of art programs we do, they really get young people excited about the art form, whether it is documentary filmmaking or creating a play. Whatever it is, the students really get excited about the play aspect of the art. At the same time, when you connect it to social issues, it's really so experiential for them."
Twelve students are involved in the Partnership's summer program to produce In My Shoes. Although Clevins Browne is the only one who has actually experienced homelessness, the rest of the team, Courtney says, is no less enthusiastic about publicizing the issue.
"A lot of them know at least, or had experience with either friends or colleagues who've experienced homelessness," he says. "So this is something that's very close to their heart, they are feeling fairly deeply about it and excited about the possibility of having a voice in it."
The team, he says, has already found homeless teens in New York City who are willing to open up and share their stories. They have begun interviewing them on film. Courtney says many of the team members have been moved by what they've heard.
"These homeless young people are very resilient, very articulate and they are not bitter," he says. "They basically want to have a hand in changing things. For example, Clevins is the kind of young man that looks always on the positive side of things and what he can do to contribute and give back to society, even though society has quite clearly not really given back to him."
Philip Courtney expects the documentary to be completed by early September. Clevins Browne says the production team will use the film as a tool for change.
"After the documentary is done, we would like to play it in high schools, in film festivals and get a mass of people watching it," he says. "The next step afterwards, would be to have people sign petitions saying they agree with our approach to ending youth homelessness. Once we have those signatures, we plan to take this over to Congress and actually bring a call for action. We're going to say to Congress, 'Well, we have this [many] people who feel strongly about homelessness. This is more evidence that something needs to be done.'"
Clevins Browne is now heading to college and putting his homeless past behind him. However, he says, he will continue his fight against homelessness because he believes serious problems get solved only when people speak up, take action and never give up.