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7 March 2010

Homelessness Ten Years After the "Dark Days" Tunnels

via Change.org's End Homelessness Blog by Rich and Elizabeth Lombino on 3/1/10

The first time we watched the documentary Dark Days we could not believe what we were seeing. At the time, we had been working with homeless people for years, but it still didn't prepare us for the magnitude of the film. Hundreds of people living underground in the tunnels under New York City. Some for years. The ultimate survivors.

Some of these homeless persons were afraid to reside above ground with "mainstream" society. Most mainstream society members would be afraid to live in the tunnels. Why are they there? What is their story? How do they do this?

All of these questions and more are answered brilliantly by Dark Days. It's been ten years since the film won three Sundance awards, the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary and a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Documentary, but it's still making an impact. The Tribeca Film Center in New York celebrated the anniversary with a screening. Rich was in attendance and had a chance to experience the film in the theater for the first time, and was able to speak at length with British director Marc Singer. (Read Rich's tweets from the screening). Singer offered his unique perspective on homelessness.

When asked about the genesis of the film, Singer discussed meeting various homeless people who lived in his neighborhood, and noticing many of them hanging around the park and on the streets surrounding the park. "There wasn't really a solution for where everyone should go. The city just didn't want anyone in the park, so everyone moved from the park to across the street and on the sidewalks in the surrounding streets." He started to build friendships and a strong curiosity to see how they lived.

One of the men he met told him about the tunnels. "He was a brilliant poet. He was scared to death to go into the tunnels, but had heard that they could be a safe place for people to go to get off of the streets. There's a lot of mythology surrounding the tunnels. I knew I just had to check them out."

Singer, then just out of his teens, spent the next year exploring the tunnels throughout the city until he found an eclectic community living in an Amtrak tunnel near Penn Station. He basically moved in, built his own home and lived with them for months. "There was this large cross-section of people, they had built elaborate structures ... they were not what the stereotype of a homeless person is -- well, no homeless person fits the stereotype -- they are extremely unique because they are people. People are all different and complicated and have life circumstances and other things that go on."

Singer reiterated that homeless individuals are all "normal people like everyone else." "[Before meeting them] all my knowledge was from what I saw on TV. I think the stereotype of a homeless person is completely born from the media, not from our perception. I think it's been ingrained in us. The people living in the tunnels had built these houses. They hadn't quit. They had made the very best of a bad situation. I had a huge amount of respect for them."

Is it possible to end homelessness? "In an ideal world, yes, everyone deserves a home. Everyone has a right to shelter. It makes a huge difference to have a home, a permanent place to go, no matter how much of a shit hole it is, it's somewhere to go. But is it really possible to end homelessness completely? I don't know. Maybe not because of the cycles people go through ... Maybe just a need for emergency shelter for times of crisis. Life could change dramatically for them if they could get a home."

When Rich left the theater and got on the subway, there was a street homeless man in the subway car. He had four garbage bags filled with his belongings and was riding the trains to stay warm for the night.

See the first ten minutes of Dark Days below:

Photo Credit: Rich Lombino

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