When we see people panhandling at intersections, or when we pass people downtown whom we perceive to be homeless, we might wonder what happened in their lives to put them in that position. Very few people wake up one day and decide that they want to live on the streets. It's often a combination of multiple factors, where some flat out end up without a support system.
Two documentaries set in Austin made their world premieres at South by Southwest Film Festival this year — they're very different stories, but both help to answer the question of how people end up living on the streets.
In "Becoming Leslie," director Tracy Frazier chronicles the life of one of Austin's most famous residents. Leslie Cochran became a fixture downtown starting in the mid-1990s. While always maintaining a full beard, Leslie enjoyed wearing women's clothing, especially short skirts and revealing thong underwear. This not only helped him stand out and get noticed but made him synonymous with the catchphrase "Keep Austin Weird." By all accounts, Leslie never had a steady home of his own over the years he lived in the city, but he survived by couch-surfing and, at one point, living in a shed in a friend's backyard.
Despite (or perhaps because of) being arrested more than 80 times, Leslie decided to run for mayor through three local election cycles. He never got more than 10 percent of the vote, but it's impressive to see footage from 2001 where Leslie discusses real solutions for the city's traffic problems and advocates for light rail. Talk about being ahead of the curve. It was never a joke to him. As seen in the documentary, Leslie really loved Austin and thought he could improve the quality of life for everyone.
But his own life included struggles with alcoholism and his overall health. Many friends and other people who looked out for him, like Cindy Brettscheider and Ruby C. Martin, are interviewed in the documentary and explain how they worked to take care of Leslie, even when he wasn't so good at taking care of himself. In one standout scene, the filmmakers interview Bob Biard in his kitchen, when Leslie comes knocking on the front door asking to borrow money. Biard just walks back inside, knowing the whole thing was being recorded, and shrugs to the camera as if to signal that this was a fairly common occurrence.
Frazier dives deep into Leslie's history, offering genuine surprises. To casual observers, Leslie was just a character, but the film goes the distance to humanize him. It uncovers a tumultuous childhood and offers a glimpse into a lost persona in Colorado ("Trapper Al") before he ended up in Texas. Austin is a little less weird without him, but "Becoming Leslie" is a fitting tribute.
Away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, there is something very special happening in East Austin, thanks to the compassionate vision of Alan Graham. He has run the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes for years, providing daily meals to anyone who needs them.
"Community First, A Home for the Homeless," a documentary by Layton Blaylock, takes us inside the titular community, now 51 acres, that has grown as an extension of Mobile Loaves & Fishes and helped to get hundreds of people off the street and into a more purpose-driven life. The initial idea was to take one homeless man and get him set up in an RV to provide him with shelter. That one RV became 40, and before long an even bigger idea was born.
The property houses a mixture of people in RVs and micro-homes. I had always just understood that Community First Village was comprised of people who had lived on the streets who were now living there. But the film also introduces us to the "missional residents" who are there to work and truly become part of the community. Through interviews with people who are living in the village, we see how they're given the opportunity to work in the community garden or on landscaping; make arts and crafts that earn the residents money if sold; and sell concessions during public events on site.
The adjustment to a new life in a new community off the streets is not always easy. Things we take for granted can cause unease to those used to focusing on survival. A recurring theme heard from the residents is how even though they were thankful to have the shelter, many slept on the floor or even outside for the first few weeks of their new life in the community, because they just didn't know how to get comfortable being in a bed.
Clocking in just a few minutes longer than an hour, the documentary deserves a wide audience. By sharing this powerful story with as many people as possible, maybe Graham's ideas can be adapted and make an even bigger difference across the nation.
"Community First, A Home for the Homeless" will screen May 31 and June 1 at Greenwich International Film Festival in New York.