Why is a question nearly all of us ask ourselves when we see those with cardboard signs at freeway exits and entrances. Why? Why are those who are flying signs needing to beg? Why can’t they get a job? Why can’t they find a home?
In a new groundbreaking film, Guttered, Jerry Sedgewick of Saint Paul, Minnesota, experiences homelessness to discover why. With a hidden camera he goes through the experience of being on the streets.
“It was a response to a dare by a friend. I made friends with Daniel when attempting to get the homeless in the Twin Cities to sell newspapers. It took me a while to get up the guts to be homeless for a day, to stay at a shelter and eat at soup kitchens, but eventually I did it,”
His friend, Daniel Velner, a formerly homeless man who also lives in Saint Paul, takes a pivotal role in the documentary. His story is particularly compelling for those who challenge the homeless to get jobs.
“I worked in IT for almost 20 years. I had a disagreement with a person in HR, got fired, and I hit a downward spiral. Divorce, bills to pay off, and suddenly I’m sleeping in a car,” Daniel says. “After that, after hitting rock bottom and experiencing depression, loss of dignity, no address, no place to call home, and hopelessness, I had to put all my energy just toward survival.”
Daniel’s isn’t the only story told in Guttered. Others tell jaw-dropping stories, stories that pull at your heart.
“When I saw the film, I couldn’t believe Jerry got people to say what they did,” says Ed Fisher, a board member of Prevail News, the non-profit agency producing the film. “It tears your heart out.”
Sedgewick adds, “I couldn’t believe these formerly homeless people said those things myself. But what was equally compelling wasn’t just the stories, it was the day-to-day experience of being homeless that I went through, and the answer to the question, why the homeless? In making the film I found that there were as many ways to become homeless as there are people, with some common threads. But what I found groundbreaking was the answer to why the homeless stay homeless.”
Why many homeless stay that way and persist, especially among single males, is an issue that has puzzled those who work with street survivors. But in the film Sedgewick presents an answer.
“As a scientist, I discovered some compelling reasons why, and along with a physician at Mayo, Jennifer Hallmark-Hill and dozens who have studied trauma, it has to do with trauma,” says Sedgewick. “Trauma can lead to long term behavioral changes that become irreversible, explained in scientific circles as behavioral epigenetics, changes that occur around the DNA. That’s why we must get people immediately into housing, what’s called Housing First, before trauma sets in, although I believe that incarceration and war-time service is also traumatic and a gateway to homelessness.”
When asked what made him come to this conclusion, Daniel interjects, “It’s because I said that being homeless gets in your DNA. And Jerry took this literally.”
“Right,” Sedgewick says. “It’s because I came across so many who had the same personality characteristics, basically the same difficulties in long-term decision making; decision making that was based only on survival for the day. So it wasn’t an individual thing, it was a shared behavior which then points to something basic, like alterations in how the DNA responds to the stressful environment.”
Sedgewick hopes that his experience, the stories he heard, and the understanding that those on the streets can be traumatized and behaviorally altered gets to a worldwide audience. The board of Prevail News decided to put the documentary on YouTube so that it can be seen for free. Guttered can also be seen at the PrevailNews website: http://www.PrevailNews.org.