A Video By Homeless Youths

Posted: April 20, 1990

Listening to the teenagers of Shelter Stories, you quickly get the picture: To be school-age and homeless is to start with the count at 0-and-2.

The ambitious video short feature, produced by Meryl Perlson and starring formerly homeless youngsters from Philadelphia, premieres tonight at 7:30 at International House in University City, along with four new works from Scribe Video Center, a local videomaking collective. The presentation is part of the Neighborhood Film/Video Project's Fifth Annual Festival of Independents, which opened Wednesday and runs through Sunday night.

In Shelter Stories we meet the eloquent 16-year-old Ernesta, who became homeless after a fire destroyed the apartment she shared with her mother and sister. We meet Jennifer, 13, whose classmates taunted her with sing-song cries of "shelter girl, shelter girl" after she, her mother and two brothers moved from one domestic-abuse shelter to another. We meet Tahira, whose grades plummeted because of the instability of shelter life and whose brother, in despair, attempted suicide.

These are the school-age homeless, a constantly changing population that the Board of Education has estimated at 975 city children on any given day, and that advocates for the homeless have estimated at 1,200.

First and foremost, the 15-minute video is the creation of its young protagonists, who came together in June through a program sponsored by Dignity Housing, a nonprofit advocacy program founded and directed by formerly homeless people. As the children began to air their feelings about shelter living, topics came up again and again: lousy physical conditions; surly security guards; lack of privacy, and the stigma of no permanent home.

Not knowing precisely how they would pull it off, the youngsters committed themselves to making a video about their experiences. They used every kind of video camera they could borrow, from a professional 3/4-inch machine to a Fisher-Price unit that is really just a toy.

To retain some privacy, the children used only first names. With the assistance of Dignity Housing, all now live in permanent homes.

Through Perlson, who began working with them in September, they gained access to the editing facilities at Scribe. Additional footage was provided by WHYY-TV (Channel 12). With the technical support of radio station WXPN-FM (88.9), they recorded an original rap soundtrack.

The result is a sometimes uneven but energetically conceived production told by its subjects, not merely one about them. Its budget was $2,500. Asked if her goal was art or advocacy, Perlson unhesitatingly said it was both. Although the videomakers were denied access to shelters, their vivid descriptions suffice.

"Usually the media portray homeless people as being uneducated," says Ernesta in one early close-up shot. "I'm here to tell you that's not true. I was homeless. I'm a senior in high school. And I am going to go to college." She will enroll in the fall at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee to study aerospace engineering.

The media's reliance on cliches - on images of unwashed men atop steam vents - is counterproductive, Ernesta complains. "It creates pity. . . . People feel sorry for them, but aren't really moved to help them."

The video's stagy overdramatizations about bad food and bugs are meant to have more of an impact by leavening the misery with humor.

Perlson, 26, a New Jersey native and a videographer intent on presenting the flip side of stories, said, "We see homeless people on the street and we tell ourselves that could never happen to me. We tell ourselves, 'I have a mother who has money. I have friends I could live with. So there must be something wrong (with the homeless) because it couldn't happen to me.' . . . We tried to break through that."

Perlson, who plans to enroll in the master of fine arts program in radio, TV and film at Temple University, is exploring the possibility of distributing Shelter Stories to schools, shelters and homeless-advocacy groups.

If that happens, Ernesta's poignant postscript may mean a lot: "To all the homeless kids out there watching this, all I can say is, 'Keep your chin up, don't lose faith, 'cause you'll make it through.' "

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Showing of Shelter Stories as part of "An Evening of New Works Produced at the Scribe Video Center." It's part of the Fifth Annual Festival of Independents.

WHERE: International House, 3701 Chestnut St.

WHEN: 7:30 tonight.

ADMISSION: $5 for adults and $4 for students, International House members and senior citizens.

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