Remembering “Streetwise” — Why We’re Revisiting the Classic Documentary

By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

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When I joined this team a few months ago, I was given the chance to watch and react to films about youth and family homelessness. My favorite, by far, was “Streetwise.”

It has been over three decades since this revered documentary first stunned the American public; however, the legacy of the film lives on, as many of the social issues illuminated in the film remain extremely relevant today. After watching “Streetwise” I found that it is not only an artistic representation of youth homelessness in Seattle, but also a powerful tool for advocacy.

As a project, we recognize the historical poignancy of this film, and we will be hosting a free screening on Friday, Oct.7 at Seattle University for anyone who wants the opportunity to watch this significant documentary. This is part of The Seattle Public Library’s “Streetwise Revisited” project, and the screening is just one way we are supporting the project.

In “Streetwise,” renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark, her husband, Martin Bell and producer Cheryl McCall take us on a journey by providing us with a firsthand perspective on what it’s like to be a homeless youth living on the streets of Seattle – a perspective that was only made possible by spending months observing, building relationships with and gaining the trust of the children they chronicled.

Erin (who goes by her street name “Tiny”) on Pike Street, Seattle, 1983
Erin (who goes by her street name “Tiny”) on Pike Street, Seattle, 1983. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

After watching “Streetwise” for the first time, I was taken aback to say the least. The film is stunning, raw, heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time, which is not what I expected from a “documentary about youth homelessness in Seattle.”

Life on the Streets

The film follows the lives of nine street kids, each of whom has created a different persona which was vital to their survival on the streets. Whether it was hustling, dumpster diving, prostitution or panhandling, the children in “Streetwise” had to work constantly to survive.

In my opinion, the most poignant character in the film (and certainly the most famous) is Erin “Tiny” Blackwell. Tiny was 13 years old when the film was shot and, like many teen girls, she had simple dreams of getting married, having children and living on a farm. However, life on the streets complicated things and Tiny was forced to mature rapidly to survive. She managed to make a living by going on “dates” with men – usually much older than her – who would pay her for her services and company. Going on these “dates” was often dangerous and unpredictable, and many girls risked the possibility of physical abuse or worse.

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“Tiny” at Seattle Center with “Horsey.” Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

In the film, it was made clear that prostitution was one of the most lucrative businesses on the streets and was a popular method for homeless teen girls to earn money at the time. However, the thing that shocked me about Tiny’s story was that she viewed living on the streets and prostitution as a choice to escape the domestic violence and alcohol abuse within her home. What was even more shocking to me was that her mother was well aware of Tiny’s street activities, but seemingly did little to interfere.

Perhaps the juxtaposition of Tiny’s extreme innocence and her behavior is what makes her character so captivating. In one scene, Tiny sits in an abandoned hotel telling Rat about her dream of getting married and having kids, and in the next she is being pulled into the shadows of a dark car by an older man, seemingly unfazed – or perhaps numbed – by what she is about to do.

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Tiny – a child who chose life on the street over an unstable home life. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

The sad truth is that Tiny’s situation was not uncommon for the children in the film and it is still not uncommon today. Domestic violence is still one of the leading causes of homelessness for women and children and affects an overwhelming number of homeless women and children. And many women and children – like the nine featured in “Streetwise” – are forced into homelessness because they truly feel it is a better option than staying in an abusive situation.

What you can do

  • Attend our screening of “Streetwise” Friday, Oct. 7 at Seattle U, and join us for a conversation about youth homelessness featuring a special guest: Tiny’s daughter, Keanna Pickett.
  • Attend the Oct. 14 screening of “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” – a follow-up to “Streetwise” – at The Seattle Public Library.
  • Read this blog post by my former colleague, popular Firesteel contributor Perry Firth, about the cultural roots of domestic violence and how we can end the perpetuation of violence against women.
  • Listen to this narrative about how Maizy, a survivor of homelessness and child abuse, uses her experiences to help homeless youth.
  • Share your thoughts about “Streetwise” and “Tiny” on social media, using the hashtag #StreetwiseSPL.

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One thought on “Remembering “Streetwise” — Why We’re Revisiting the Classic Documentary

  1. Pingback: There Is No Perfect Answer — What I Learned from “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell”

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