Top 10* Films of the Decade — About Homelessness

By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

A film about homelessness was named among the top 10 best films of the entire decade. That’s something we couldn’t have foreseen when we first hosted a film screening in 2011, in the anxious moments when we wondered whether anyone would want to come and watch a movie about homelessness.

Then came a stream of memorable characters, stories and performances, as well as creative ways to frame a story about homelessness and ground-breaking access to the people experiencing it.

As the decade’s Top 10 lists began popping up everywhere, and as our project celebrates our 10th anniversary, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the many excellent films made in the 2010s that deal profoundly and sensitively with homelessness. 

We won’t cover every film about homelessness here – just the ones we screened (although we were choosy about what we screened). And instead of ranking them, we’ll go chronologically, as we presented them. 

*This is actually a Top 11 list, if you count the “American Refugees” short films separately.


1. Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County (2010; directed by Alexandra Pelosi)

Cover art from “Motel Kids,” 2010.

Our very first film screening proved to us the power of film to engage audiences on family homelessness.  In January 2011, we partnered with SIFF on a screening of this HBO documentary by the Emmy-nominated director Alexandra Pelosi. She captured the stories of the families living in run-down budget motels near Disneyland, and her ground-breaking access to the children of those families yielded portraits that are heartbreaking and illuminating.

Alexandra on New Day snip

Ms. Pelosi came to Seattle for the screening and a Q&A, preceded by local media appearances and a trip to Tacoma earlier that day for a screening at the Grand Theatre for Pierce County providers. Journalist Rosette Royale of Real Change, one of our original Journalism Fellows, accompanied us for the drive to Tacoma for a behind-the-scenes story.

How to Watch: On HBO or Prime Video

2. Kicking It (2008; Susan Koch, Jeff Werner, co-directors)

As part of our new strategy of trying to meet the community where they are — in this case, soccer fans — we hosted a screening of this documentary about the Homeless World Cup in March 2012 at the Egyptian. The film, narrated by Colin Farrell, follows six players vying to take the world title in a competition that enables people to prove they are more than their experience of homelessness. We partnered with Street Soccer Seattle, whose theme is “soccer for social justice,” and hosted a pre-film party at what was then the headquarters of sports energy drink Golazo; a couple Sounders even dropped by to kick it around on the indoor pitch. The founder of Street Soccer USA, Lawrence Cann, was our special guest for the screening and also visited with local nonprofits who serve youth. Read more about the event.

How to Watch: DVD on Amazon


3. Inocente (2012; Sean Fine, co-director and Andrea Nix, co-director)

Inocente herself takes the stage at the SAM screening. Photo by Steve Schimmelman.

The only Oscar winner on this list, “Inocente” introduced the world to a 15-year-old who had been homeless with her family and followed her journey as an artist. In the years since, Inocente‘s story has become even more intriguing because of how she entered the country as a child. The teen artist enchanted us when she came to Seattle as a guest at our screening at Seattle Art Museum in September 2012, and an after-party at cmd+p in Pioneer Square, the art gallery and retail space run by our partner for this event, Sanctuary Art Center. Earlier that day, she had appeared at the annual breakfast for Metropolitan Development Council in Tacoma, and ran an art workshop for teens experiencing homelessness at SAC’s drop-in center.

How to Watch: iTunes

Read more in this appropriately artfully written review by our own Perry Firth for Firesteel.


4. American Winter (2013; Harry Gantz and Joe Gantz, co-directors)

American Winter Poster Art V6 2 22 13 sml

The second HBO documentary on this list, “American Winter” followed eight families from Portland, Ore. who had contacted the 211 helpline. The film was one of the first to emphasize the income inequality that was leading to family homelessness around the country, and included commentary from economic experts.

Filmmaker Joe Gantz joined us for the screening at the Uptown Cinema in June 2013, which we hosted with a bevy of partners, and so did many members of the families featured in the film. You can see photos from the screening, including the post-film Q&A, here.

We took a step forward in our advocacy work by writing a discussion guide for the film, an approach we repeated several more times for other filmmakers.

Gantz also conducted a communications workshop for our partners, giving us advice on how he approached this delicate situation of families telling their stories during such a vulnerable time.

How to Watch: Amazon Prime


5. @Home (2013; directed by Suzanne Suffredin)

Mark Horvath, Haley Lewis, @home, drawing

If you’ve spent any time following social media about homelessness, you’ve no doubt encountered the pioneer in this field, Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal) of Invisible People. Director Suzanne Suffredin followed Mark on a cross-country journey as he combined homelessness outreach with his frank observations about homelessness in America.


Mark joined us in person for a screening of the film as part of the Hack to End Homelessness in May 2014.

Our student project assistant Haley Jo Lewis created the illustration of Mark in his tweet above, and wrote about the film’s impact in this post.

How to Watch: YouTube


6, 7, 8, 9. American Refugees (2014: various directors; produced by Lindy Boustedt)

We can’t make a list of top films without including the home-grown films from our “sister project” here at SU, the Film & Family Homelessness Project. The four animated shorts from that project featured four different teams of filmmakers each working in unique styles of animation, highlighting the real-life stories of thousands of Washington families experiencing poverty or homelessness. The films, which premiered at SIFF in May 2014, have been viewed all over the world, from local groups in church basements and at conferences, to people checking out cutting-edge animation by watching on their phones.

The Smiths, By Neely Goniodsky: Hand-drawn animation, digital cutouts, and paintings are used to tell this heartwarming story about how a family falls into homelessness, and then is able to move out of it with the help of a compassionate, supportive community.

Home for Sale, By Laura Jean Cronin: Imagine seeing glimpses of the family who once lived in the foreclosed home you’re touring and considering to buy. This powerful piece comes from its radio play nature and rich oil paintings that were physically layered to create the 30-plus animated images seen in the film.

The Beast Inside, By Amy Enser and Drew Christie: Told through the power of spoken word rap and illustrated with hand-drawn animations and a muted warm color palette, a teen in a homeless family describes his challenges and celebrates the triumph of his creative self.

Super Dads, By Sihanouk Mariona: Using a kaleidoscope of real stories to create an overarching storyline, fathers and children share their worries, feelings, challenges and how they overcame being homeless using stop motion animated clay characters.

Meet the filmmakers, and download the Discussion Guide for the films, here.


10. The “Streetwise: Revisited” Project (Director: Martin Bell)

Erin (who goes by her street name “Tiny”) on Pike Street, Seattle, 1983

The ground-breaking, Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary “Streetwise” introduced the world to Seattle teenagers living on the streets, including Erin “Tiny” Blackwell. Filmmakers Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell stayed in close contact with Erin over the years and produced several follow-up films, including “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell” in 2016. We partnered with The Seattle Public Library and Firesteel on a six-week-long community program, “Streetwise: Revisited,” featuring screenings of both films, an exhibit of treasured photos by Mark (who died in 2015), lectures, and a full-day event of art, entertainment and advocacy. 

How to Watch: “Streetwise” is on YouTube. Find screenings of “Tiny” on the film’s website.


11. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017; directed by Sean Baker)

Florida Project invite

This narrative gem was the perfect bookend for our film-screening experiences. Whereas our first show was a documentary about children living near Disneyland, “THE FLORIDA PROJECT” fictionalized the stories of children living near Disney World (nicknamed “The Florida Project” when it was under development). An Oscar-nominated performance by Willem Dafoe and Critics’ Choice award for Brooklynn Prince — who played six-year-old Moonee brought the story of down-on-their-luck families to life, against a backdrop of fantastical children’s play and vivid cinematography.

Florida Project rainbow running gif

Director Sean Baker came to Seattle for the screening we co-hosted with Housing Development Consortium and Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. Later, as part of our advocacy work, we helped coordinate a discussion with Sean at the national conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Los Angeles, four days before the Oscars.

Watch it more than once and see if your feelings change about Moonee’s young mom, Hayley; better yet, watch it with the help of the Action Guide and Discussion Guide that we developed for A24 Films along with HDC and many others. Find out more about the project, including our student assistant Katie’s review, and how to use the film for advocacy.

How to Watch: Prime Video, others


Changing the Housing Narrative — A Talk with Dr. Tiffany Manuel

By Catherine Hinrichsen, project director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

An emotional video about a blind man begging — “Change Your Words, Change Your World,” with 27 million views on YouTube — is one example of powerful messaging that Dr. Tiffany Manuel shared at a convening of housing communicators July 24 at Seattle University.

The video tells the story of a blind man unsuccessfully begging for change, until a passerby intervenes and shifts his story. “DrT,” as she prefers to be called, asked for our observations on the before/after scenario in the film: What was different about the message that didn’t work, and the one that changed everything ? Our discussion uncovered some of the key elements of successful messaging: A positive approach. Shared experiences. Evoking empathy rather than sympathy. A call to action.

But too often, says DrT, our messages about housing and homelessness backfire. “Our single biggest failure is that we treat it like it’s a technical problem – like we only need more housing,” when in fact there are systemic and adaptive challenges, she said.

Tiffany Manuel snip

Forty-five communicators representing 37 different local housing and homelessness providers, advocacy organizations and funders attended the convening to hear this national expert on building inclusive communities. We also thank Philanthropy Northwest for their partnership on this and recruiting their members. While we hold smaller quarterly convenings with our advocacy partners, we were able to offer this expanded experience through the generosity of Katie Hong of the Raikes Foundation, who had invited DrT to Seattle for a foundation gathering. Continue reading

A Response to the KOMO-TV Special on Homelessness

Crosscut op-ed front page

Like many people who are working on homelessness in this region, our project director, Catherine, was outraged when she saw a recent one-hour special on KOMO-TV. After she tweeted about it, the online media site Crosscut asked her to write an op-ed. Read it here.

If you agree, please share and make your comments known on Crosscut, on social media, or by contacting KOMO-TV.



Update: Since this first response, many others have been published, including these:

United Way of King County, March 20, 2019: “The danger of equating opioid use with homelessness

Real Change News, March 27, 2019: “Seattle is splitting, not dying,” Timothy Harris

Crosscut, April 26, 2019: “Jail can’t fix homelessness or substance use,” Richard Waters, M.D., MSc

South Seattle Emerald, July 16, 2019: “Seattle isn’t dying; Here’s how to respond to people who think it is,” Kayla Blau

Collective Urgency, Spirit of Support — Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day 2019

HHAD 2019 Olympia A&C with structure

By Connor Crinion and Anneke Karreman, Project Assistants, Seattle University Project on Family  Homelessness


Note: Every year our student project assistants create a special event to support Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day (HHAD) in Olympia, and every year there’s a special twist that reflects the creativity and energy of that team. So when more than 600 advocates from around the state filled the steps of the Legislative Building on Feb. 28, 2019, they saw something new and different: a special art installation created by our project assistants, Anneke and Connor. They reflect on what they’ll take away from this whole experience, which started last fall with the eviction reform fact sheets they created for WLIHA.


What were your expectations before HHAD, and what’s your perspective now after participating?

Anneke: What I thought about HHAD before I got there was chanting on the steps and meeting with legislators about housing and homelessness advocacy, but in reality it turned out to be much more. It was a bonding experience in that everyone was there for the same thing, but with different levels of experience and different lived experiences. It didn’t matter if you had gone before or not; everyone was welcome.

HHADflier(FINALcorrected SINGLE)_1-11-19
Because WLIHA was short-staffed on communications this year, they asked us for help creating a flier. Here’s the flier Anneke designed.

Connor: In some ways, HHAD was similar to the expectations that I had, and in other ways it was quite different. Meeting with legislators and legislative aides felt familiar, as I’ve done that in the past at various lobby days that I’ve attended. However, HHAD also provided a sense of community that I’ve never felt before while engaged in advocacy—meeting advocates and activists throughout the day felt like being welcomed into a broad community. Whether the connection was fleeting, or something that may last more long-term, it felt powerful to connect with others based on our shared values.

Photo Feb 28, 1 43 54 PM (1)
Part of the HHAD community: SU Prof. Rashmi Chordiya joined us for the day, and our partner Eric Bronson of Firesteel/ YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish was among the many advocates we saw that day. Here, Rashmi, Anneke, Eric and Connor pose in front of the flag of King County and other Washington counties, in the Legislative Building.

What was the postcard project, what was your role, and why did you decide to do it?

Connor and Anneke at one of the postcard tabling events, in Cherry Street Market, our main dining facility.

Anneke: This project was designed to educate and engage the community at Seattle University to advocate for different policies regarding student homelessness, eviction reform, and affordable housing in Washington state.  To expand on the successful advocacy postcard project that Katie, Madison and Tess did last year, we thought up a way for the postcards to be displayed in a way that also alluded to the spirit of support for those who experience housing instability and loss. We decided on a “house”-like structure to symbolize the intrinsic importance of the home and the foundation it provides for a person’s success and well being.

The postcards I designed utilize the human symbol of the hand and connect it to the home through its combination with household belongings.


HHAD Tabling Event 2_2-20-19_by Hallie three cards
Anneke’s friend Hallie came by the tabling event and became one of our most enthusiastic supporters. Here she displays the three postcards, each with a different theme related to this year’s legislative agenda. Photo by Hallie.


Connor: My contributions to the display structure and postcard project mainly related to writing the copy for the postcards, legislative research, and handling some of the logistics related to placing the structure on the Capitol campus in Olympia. To help in writing the copy, I was able to draw in knowledge from classes and past work experiences to better inform how we discussed and framed issues of eviction, affordable housing, cost burden for renters, and the challenges faced by students experiencing homelessness.

SU’s mascot, Rudy the Redhawk, stopped by one of our tabling events. “Home is a warm nest,” he wrote (with a little help from Connor).

I am grateful that collecting the advocacy postcards – nearly 200 — provided us with the opportunity to engage the Seattle University community in critical discussion about the tremendous need for housing in our city and state. For me, deciding to display the postcards allowed us to connect our community to the larger statewide movement for housing justice. Even though only Anneke and I were the only SU students to travel down to Olympia, our display was a reminder that we were joined in spirit by many remote advocates, both those from SU and others.


Photo Feb 28, 12 49 20 PM
We visited the office of Anneke’s representative, Sen. Christine Rolfes, who’s also the chair of Senate Ways & Means. Because of her leadership role, we delivered the postcards about affordable housing and student homelessness to her.


What’s one moment or memory that stands out to you from the day?


HHAD Olympia display from back
The postcards could be displayed on both sides of the structure; here’s the view looking up at the Legislative Building.

Anneke: One of the most compelling parts of HHAD to me was the drumming and prayer led from indigenous members from Chief Seattle Club. A woman from the Lakota tribe led the prayer which she spoke in both her first indigenous language, then in English. Sage was burned during this time and the rich smoke wafted from the parking lot up to the steps. There was something truly special about that moment, to hear the expression of an ancient and endangered language by a native leader. Her speech was also followed by a drumming session by members of the club.

HHAD Olympia Chief Seattle drum circle
Members of Chief Seattle Club led the crowd in drumming and prayer. Photo from Chief Seattle Club.

The rhythmic beat of the drum connected everyone there in that moment and made me think about how we all stood on indigenous land of the Duwamish tribe. It was also mentioned how Native Americans have been the top demographic to experience homelessness. In truth, it started a long time ago during the time of Westernization and assimilation and natives were forced from their home spaces.

Connor: One aspect that struck me was the scale and the collective urgency that I felt while participating. Gathering on the steps of the Legislative Building in Olympia with hundreds of other advocates was a moment that reminded me of the stakes of the day, and the potential impact that our advocacy could have on the lives of thousands of Washingtonians.

As WLIHA staff and other HHAD participants led chants with the 600-strong crowd gathered on the steps, I almost felt like I could feel the possibility of a world with more just eviction laws, more affordable housing, and fewer students experiencing homelessness. While obviously our chanting alone did not get us there, I believe the collective power that it represented will help us get a bit closer to that world.


HHAD Olympia rally
Advocates gather on the steps of the Legislative Building to rally for housing justice.


What are you most proud of from your experience at HHAD?

Anneke: I am most proud of the potential ways in which this project inspired people at HHAD, at Seattle University, and lawmakers to have conversations about housing affordability, eviction reform, and student homelessness. I really hope that lawmakers will read each postcard thoroughly.

HHAD Olympia with Chopp Anneke talking
At the 43rd District meeting, Anneke describes the project to Speaker Frank Chopp. Later, we delivered the eviction-themed postcards to him.

Possibly, the postcards will influence some of the outcome of some law decisions around housing and eviction reform.

Last year, the sticker with the image of the red advocacy scarf was a big hit. Madison Vucci, our student design assistant last year and now SU alum, updated the sticker for 2019.


I am also proud of our team of three that enabled this installation to happen. It was a crazy idea to start out, which seemed unattainable at times, but all of our meetings discussing logistics and content paid off. I am honored that I could bring local Seattle voices to the Capitol and support those who need it the most through public art. As a team of only two project assistants, I am very proud of the way Connor and I brought our strengths to the table for this project.

HHAD Olympia Anneke and dad installing
Anneke’s dad, Frank Karreman, is an architect who designed the structure. He even came to Olympia to help us install it.


The video below, by Prof. Chordiya, shows a close-up of some of the postcard messages.


Connor: There’s a lot to be proud of. First and foremost, I think Anneke and her dad, Frank, deserve recognition and appreciation for the hard work that they put into creating the structure. Without them, displaying the postcards would not have been possible.

I am also proud of our entire team for the way that we collaborated to get the project done. From Catherine helping us through brainstorming and anticipating challenges, to the way Anneke and I collaborated to integrate the written messaging with the vision for the design of the hand, I think our collaboration and flexibility made this project possible.

HHAD Olympia installation roof
Anneke and Connor, directed by Anneke’s dad, Frank, install the roof on the display.


Lastly, a short thank you from Anneke and Connor:

In recognition that this project was a collaborative effort, we would like to conclude by thanking many of the people that helped make it possible. Many thanks to the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance for organizing this day, as well as Seattle University’s Facilities Team for their assistance in getting this project down to Olympia.

HHAD Olympia Dimitri
Dimitri Groce managed HHAD and took care of thousands of details. Thank you, Dimitri!

In particular, thank you to Dimitri Groce of WLIHA for all his support and encouragement throughout the process.

Thank you to our Project Supervisor Catherine for supporting us in every way throughout this project. Thank you Prof. Rashmi Chordiya for your positive presence and technical support at Olympia during the event.



HHAD Olympia A C C installation
The team at the end of a long but rewarding day: Connor, Catherine, Anneke. Photo by Rashmi Chordiya.


We’d also like to thank Kristina Sawyckyj, the 43rd District legislative lead (and SU student), for her support in our meeting with Speaker Chopp.

Thank you also to Frank Karreman; you made the “house” design come to life.

HHAD Olympia Frank and Anneke
Architect Frank Karreman and daughter, Anneke, a talented design team!


Finally, we are grateful to all the Seattle University students, faculty, staff, and community members who took the time to write a postcard — thank you for adding your voice to a statewide movement.




All photos by Catherine Hinrichsen unless otherwise noted. 

Durkan and Moon: Voters’ Guide on Housing and Homelessness


To help Seattle voters make the important choice of how to vote for our next mayor, we’ve partnered with leading housing and homelessness advocacy organizations and service providers on a 2017 voter education project, with two major components:

  • Voters’ Guide on Housing and Homelessness
  • Changing Seattle: Mayoral Candidates Debate Growth, Affordable Housing and Homelessness, Tuesday, Sept. 12 at Seattle University

Voter’s Guide

The first, below, is this online Voters’ Guide on Housing and Homelessness, produced in partnership with Solid Ground, Housing Development Consortium and Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness.  Continue reading