The state of California is in a housing crisis. Gone are the days of the California Dream, when a person could realistically expect, so long as they had a decent job, to own a modest three bedroom house with a nice front lawn and a spacious backyard. Now the dream is simply to get by, to not end up on the street, because with a housing crisis, naturally comes a homeless crisis. The causes are numerous: skyhigh property costs, stagnant wages, outdated zoning laws, and yes, the assumed mental health and addiction problems—anyway you slice it, the situation is dire. And it is worse nowhere else than in the land of glitz and glam, my birthplace, Los Angeles.
According to a report from earlier this year by the Los Angeles Times, in the last six years the city’s homeless population has surged a whopping 75%, from 33,243 people (an already horrific number) to a staggering 55,188. Anecdotally, I can confirm the data. Homelessness has always been a problem for the area, but the last few years have brought an unprecedented amount of suffering in plain view. Long confined to freeway overpasses, out of sight pockets, beach communities, and the infamous Skid Row, makeshift encampments have sprouted in practically every neighborhood you can name.
Enter Rémi Kessler’s The Advocates, a touching new documentary about the admirable individuals who help and advocate for those most in need. A wide range of supplemental interviews with qualified sources—such as Gary Blasi, Professor of Law Emeritus at UCLA, and longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez—offer a historical backdrop for the city’s crisis, but the meat of the film is found in the painstaking efforts of three particular advocates: Claudia Perez, Rudy Salinas, and Mel Tillekeratne.
Of the three featured advocates, Perez has the most personal connection to the issue, having struggled with addiction and homelessness herself. She knows firsthand the alienating effects it has on the psyche, and believes everyone is worthy of a second chance. She founded LA on Cloud9 in 2012, a volunteer program that delivers care packages to people on the streets. She coordinates multiple gatherings, and one thing that sticks out is the large percentage of youth volunteers; one of the biggest obstacles in the fight against homelessness is the lack of empathy most people have, so she makes it a priority to instill compassion at a young age. At the beginning of the film she is employed as a welder, but eventually she gets a job as a social worker in homeless services. Through this job, we see her help a man and his two dogs get off the street. He is skeptical at first, but she lets him know she truly cares and isn’t going to abandon him down the line.
Tillekeratne is the founder of Monday Night Mission, which started as a weekly feeding service but soon morphed into a nightly one; since 2011, the program has served over 500,000 meals to the residents of Skid Row. Tillekeratne preaches inclusiveness and making homeless people feel accepted. They always ask for names and try to establish lasting connections. At one point he organizes a large protest in favor of Prop HHH, the Permanent Supportive Housing Loan Program that was passed in 2016.
Salinas, at the time of filming a Program Director at Housing Works, has worked in homeless services since 1998. The film opens on him helping a homeless brother and sister, Ruben and Yolanda, move their seven cars (of which only one has a working engine) to avoid parking tickets. No matter how many times he’s helped them, it astonishes him that they continue to deal with such a process. Thankfully he manages to secure them a place of residence, though it doesn’t come without its fair share of headaches. We also see him help an alcoholic Salvadoran man, William, get the help he needs; when William shows a picture of himself in his heyday as a soldier in the Salvadoran army, it’s an affecting reminder that everyone has a story and more damning evidence that veterans around the globe don’t receive the benefits they should.
The power of The Advocates isn’t so much in its depiction of a truly monumental problem, but in its depiction of a solution. It sheds light on the impact everyday citizens can have in improving the living conditions of those neglected by society. Though the current situation leaves little to be hopeful about, the film ultimately posits a message of optimism. It’s not an easy road, sometimes an advocate might fail twenty times before progress is made with an individual. But it’s the twenty-first that makes it all worth it.