‘The Advocates’ profiles workers on the front lines of L.A.’s homelessness battle

By Brian Marks

Rémi Kessler’s “The Advocates” is a snapshot of homelessness in L.A. today and the people who rally on their behalf

We’ve all heard someone complaining about the existence of homeless people at one point or another. Perhaps they suggested those without a home were lazy, or that they should just get a job at McDonald’s. “The Advocates,” a new documentary that begins a week-long run at the Laemmle’s Monica Film Center on Oct. 19, opens with a scene that instantly calls those assumptions into question.

Immediately we’re plunged into the nightly struggle of a senior homeless sibling pair. Their most valuable possessions are seven cars, which must be moved every evening to comply with parking restrictions. Complicating matters is the fact that only one vehicle has a working battery. The sole functioning car has to tow the other decrepit vehicles to their new resting spots, often requiring someone to get out and push. Rudy Salinas, chief program officer at The Center at Blessed Sacrament and a homelessness advocate, helps push their cars and wonders how he can help relieve them of this burden. The one running vehicle looks as if each shuddering drive might be its last.

The nightly ritual is tortuous and exhausting work, far from the life of sloth some might imagine. Yet “Advocates” director and producer, Rémi Kessler, is wary of creating poverty porn. “I didn’t want to play to the misery of people,” he says.

Rather, Kessler’s focus in the film isn’t on those without housing, but on the organizations and workers who toil tirelessly to find affordable housing and live-saving services for those in need.

His interest began when a homeless man interrupted a coffee date in Silver Lake with a request for money. Kessler tried to make the man leave, but his friend gave the man a dollar bill with “Feed the people and love them” stamped on it.

“I asked my friend what it was about, and he said, ‘Who am I to judge someone who’s begging?’” says Kessler. “And this made me think that maybe I didn’t act appropriately.”

The film Kessler made is both an ode to those who do everything they can to find housing for the homeless, as well as a primer on Los Angeles County’s tumultuous housing history and the origins of its homeless crisis.

“The film represents a great opportunity to educate and engage people in the work to end homelessness,” says Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which is a partner on the film. “‘The Advocates’ celebrates people who are working tirelessly to help bring our neighbors off the streets and into the safety of a home, while also demonstrating that we need everyone, in every neighborhood, to become local advocates for proven-solutions.”

Kessler and his interview subjects have a clear viewpoint: Los Angeles and its surrounding cities have a moral imperative to focus more efforts on eradicating homelessness. But beyond being the right thing to do, the documentary’s experts argue that concentrating more resources on finding affordable housing is also the financially smart move.

“It’s much less expensive to spend public resources housing the most vulnerable people than it is to cycle them through not only the emergency rooms, but the jails, the courts, the streets,” says Gary Blasi, a Professor of Law Emeritus at UCLA, in the film.

Another of the film’s experts Alisa Orduna, a senior advisor on homelessness for Santa Monica and formerly Los Angeles’ Homelessness Policy Director, remains matter of fact about the state of homelessness in Los Angeles County and the steps that private citizens can take to help those without permanent housing.

“As far as donations go, it’s always hard to say, ‘Don’t give someone a dollar,’” says Orduna over the phone. “I wouldn’t say that, because that’s your choice. But I would say, when you do that, a more effective outcome is to also give to an organization. You could always go to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority website and see who’s contracted through Measure H to deliver these services.”

Though Kessler’s film focuses on ways we can improve the lives of homeless people, he suggests starting with a simple act of acknowledgment.

“When you see someone in the street, look at him in the eyes,” says Kessler. “Say, ‘Hi.’ If you do that a few times, you’re going to start caring about those people and wondering who they are. Just treat them as regular human beings. That’s the first thing we can all do.”

“The Advocates” screens from Oct. 19 to 25 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. Q&As follow the screenings on Oct. 19, 20 & 21. For tickets, visit laemmle.com.