A 90-minute documentary that takes a comprehensive look at Honolulu’s homeless problem — and offers possible solutions — will begin airing on television this week with the message that “these are human beings, we can’t turn our backs on them,” according to one of the producers.
“It turns out that treating people as human garbage is a really expensive way to deal with the problem,” said Anthony Aalto, who co-produced the documentary, “No Room in Paradise,” with his filmmaking partner, Mike Hinchey, and production manager Hope Duran. “It’s just not smart.”
‘NO ROOM IN PARADISE’
>> Wednesday, 8-9:30 p.m. on KGMB
>> Oct. 30, 7-8:30 p.m on KHNL
>> Nov. 5, 8:30-10 p.m. on KGMB
>> Nov. 13, 8-9:30 p.m. on KHNL
Source: Green Island Films
“No Room in Paradise” takes an intimate look inside the lives of several homeless people, including a one-legged man who costs taxpayers thousands of dollars when he regularly calls for an ambulance to take him to the Queen’s Medical Center to get cleaned up because he’s unable to change his feces-filled diaper by himself.
The images of frightened and confused children caught up in city sweeps can be uncomfortable to watch, along with the stories of homeless women who talk of being raped and physically and emotionally abused. After filming ended, Aalto said that the two women who provide the main story line in the documentary had their children taken away by Child Welfare Services.
Justin Phillips, homeless outreach field manager for the Institute of Human Services, serves as the documentary’s narrator and protagonist, who encourages a wide range of homeless people to get the help they need at homeless shelters, only to see them turn around and return to the street.
“It’s not a pretty issue,” Aalto said. “It’s not sexy. It’s not really something people want to look at. But this is our community. We hope people will feel compelled to watch it and be educated and become engaged.”
At the same time, Aalto maintains that “No Room in Paradise” will leave viewers “with a sense of hope,” he said. “It is possible to help these people. The public should not be cynical or judgmental. Not only is that the wrong thing to do morally, it just doesn’t make fiscal sense.”
The filmmakers spent thousands of hours interviewing dozens of the key players — from Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell to a homeless man who tells Phillips that he built the Vatican and invented the space shuttle and the M-4 carbine rifle.
The solutions appear simple: Build more affordable housing and make it easier for homeless people to get treatment for their problems, especially mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse. But they’re costly and take political capital that Aalto contends is lacking.
“Our elected officials know what needs to be done,” he said. “Their hearts are in the right place. They just need more public support.”
Aalto and Hinchey knew little about homelessness when Hawaii News Now General Manager Rick Blangiardi approached their Green Island Films production company in 2014 to make a documentary for sister stations KHNL and KGMB to air without commercial interruption.
“Rick Blangiardi is passionate on this issue and he’s impatient with our elected officials,” Aalto said. “I think he was hoping the film would be more critical of our elected officials. The reason it isn’t is because we came away from it convinced that our elected officials are fully aware of the issue and they are committed to doing something about it. At the end of the day we think the film is directed more at the public at large than it is at our elected officials, who need to know that the public is on their side if they want to do more.”
Blangiardi said, “We needed this to be a major wake-up call. We need to be that voice, not just for the homeless, but for everyone who’s seeing this unprecedented development all around them.”
The documentary morphed into “a compassion project,” Blangiardi said. “Clearly it’s not going to get solved at Honolulu Hale, or at the state Capitol, by themselves. We think this documentary will help propel that call to action (among citizens) to ask government to get more involved with the private sector in helping us solve this problem. … Even if we have the worst situation here per capita, we can address this in a very, very big way, certainly much bigger than we’re currently doing.”
During their two years with Oahu’s homeless, the documentary crew sometimes took days and weeks gaining their trust before turning on the camera. The filmmakers grew to consider their homeless subjects their friends.
One woman could not check into a drug treatment program because she lacked required closed-toed shoes to work in the treatment center’s kitchen. A 14-year-old boy could not go to school because he had nothing to wear on his feet.
So Aalto took them shopping.
“You can’t spend time with people like that and not act like a human being,” Aalto said.
He spent 27 years working as a journalist for The Guardian, BBC and The Economist and has no problem crossing traditional U.S. journalism lines of objectivity in the name of advocacy journalism, or what Aalto calls “campaigning journalism.”
“There is a history of campaigning filmmaking, just as there is a history of campaigning journalism,” Aalto said.
But the perspectives of the film crew evolved over the course of filming.
“We’re no different than the public at large,” Aalto said. “We didn’t know what to make of people with mental issues and drug addicts. My feeling toward a lot of the homeless was one of revulsion because they don’t live with proper sanitation. The places where they live look like shanty towns. They look like garbage. But the majority of people we encountered were above average in intelligence. It was a bias we had. ‘Why else would they be homeless and living like that?’”
But while he grew to sympathize with the homeless, Aalto also learned to appreciate the seemingly contradictory combination of sweeps and social service outreach that Caldwell calls “compassionate enforcement” or “compassionate disruption.”
The documentary cost more than $400,000 to make. Despite major contributions from HNN, the Queen’s Medical Center, Hawaii Pacific Health, Stanford Carr Development, Kyoya Hotels, Starwood Hotels, First Hawaiian Bank, Hawaiian Dredging, the Hunt Cos., Pacific Resource Partnership and Pacific Links International, the filmmakers estimate they’re still short about $200,000 in recouping their costs.
Although Aalto hopes to earn some revenue through sales of DVDs, he’s also happy to show “No Room in Paradise” for free to groups that want to learn more about homelessness.
“No Room in Paradise” debunks many of the myths that surround the homeless, such as the mistaken belief that the majority of them come from somewhere else — leading to the false hope that the easy solution is to send them back.
In fact, the documentary points out that surveys of Oahu’s 4,300 homeless population found that the last permanent address for 90 percent of them was here. It also looks at the issues of homeless Micronesians — another group that gets a disproportionate amount of blame — and the separate issues involving homeless military veterans.