Documentary depicts hardships of Vallejo's homeless

February 22, 2011 7:20:00 PM PST
Homelessness is an issue in nearly every community. Now, one North Bay man hopes to change the lives of the homeless in his community by telling their stories. His in-depth look at life on the streets is also showing how hard it is for cash-strapped cities to get a handle on the growing problem. We learned about his project through uReport powered by YouTube.

Many of the homeless people in the North Bay live in a shuttered auto dealership on the edge of the now-bankrupt city of Vallejo. The residents have found themselves here by circumstance -- it could be divorce, the recession or even substance abuse.

Filmmaker TJ Walkup is giving the homeless an opportunity to share their experiences and raise awareness about their situation.

"More often than not, what I get is articulate well-informed interesting people with real human stories," he said.

Walkup is part of a national campaign of volunteers documenting homelessness in America called "Homeless in the Heartland."

"Sometimes it's cold, sometimes it's frightening. Most of the time I am having really good experiences with the people I am talking to," he said.

Nimat Shakoor-Grantham is in charge of code enforcement for the city of Vallejo. The county estimates there are 250 people on the streets of Vallejo and only two homeless shelters. The city provided video showing what's behind the auto-dealership gates.

"Often times when citizens call complaining about a homeless encampment, they are complaining about blight, trash, junk, debris, human waste," Shakoor-Grantham said.

It's her job to respond to those complaints and make sure people are following the law. Abandoned buildings like the auto dealership may offer shelter, but they also present serious health and safety concerns.

"All the structures there have been red-tagged," she said.

Part of the dealership burned in a fire, but that hasn't kept people out.

"There's no water, there's no electricity, there's no sanitary facilities," Shakoor-Grantham said.

Cities like Vallejo are obligated by law to follow-up on those code violations, but they don't always have the cash to deal with the human reality of the problems. So they rely on community groups to fill in where city services fail.

"We have a mobile food distribution unit that goes out twice a month to distribute food," Garth Hopkins of Food Distribution Ministry said.

Walkup is hoping his video project will lead to solutions. He has already spawned a movement in Vallejo and the homeless are now speaking up.

"Thirty-two degrees at night, I really don't think that anybody likes sleeping in that, I didn't," homeless woman Kathy Cohrs said.

Homeless people fed up with the way they are being treated are now organizing and even showing up at city meetings.

"Sometimes, we're not opening the doors that need to be opened," homeless advocate Doug Darwin said. "It's been a vicious cycle when we evict people from their dwellings and we force them to go from one location to another, but we're not providing alternatives."

Darwin suggests using abandoned buildings at the now closed Mare Island Naval Shipyard to create shelters for the homeless. Walkup agrees that could be a start, and he hopes his videos will help spark a dialog that will ultimately lead to a long-term solution.

"They are saying they want their human rights and their civil rights respected," Walkup said.

The owner of that Vallejo auto dealership was ordered to clean up the property or face thousands of dollars in fines. They agreed to level the site soon, but with the demolition will come a new challenge -- what to do with all the people who have made it home.

uReport:
Take part in the news. Upload videos and photos to uReport.abc7news.com, or e-mail them to uReport@kgo-tv.com.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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