Filmmaker Jeff Hess didn't realize what he was getting himself into when he went looking for music for a soundtrack for one of his movies. He'd heard a homeless man playing guitar and thought he was pretty good, so he approached him about recording some music. And he got sucked into Mike Imperio's story because it was so much like his own he couldn't understand why he hadn't ended up the same way.
Jeff, a chemical engineer who joined the Navy right out of high school, was born in Portland, Oregon. He attended Oregon State University in Corvalis, Oregon after he got out of the service. Then what intrigued him was how we are raised, what we know, how the early influences of our lives impact us. So he followed Mike around, met his family and interviewed his sister at length. Out of his time came a full-length documentary: Never Walk Away.
"It wasn't that I planned to do a film on homelessness and found these guys," Jeff told me. "I planned to do another film and this film just happened instead."
After filming Never Walk Away and spending time with Mike and the others, he's very familiar with the issues they face — including being shot at by fraternity boys along an alley where many of the homeless collect cans.
In 2004, around the time Jeff was filming this movie, an OSU fraternity boy named Josh Grimes deliberately shot a homeless man (not Mike) in the thigh with a .22 rifle. His sentence in 2007? 400 hours of community service and $3,000 in restitution, as well as just 150 days in jail. The problem is, Josh wasn't the first nor the last to shoot at the homeless in that alley.
"They're scared," Jeff told me. "They don't know when they'll be shot at."
Having read the news accounts of the shooting and watching the movie, it angered me to see the alley where the shooting happened, and saddened to see men dumpster-diving in the alley even after the shooting. It's hard not to feel compassion for Mike and his friends, but it's also hard not to understand why the citizens of Corvalis are frustrated, angry and tired of the homeless as well.
Jeff doesn't pull any punches. His camera shows the trash and garbage and the impact of homeless camps on wetlands and the parks around Corvalis. The homeless in this movie are, as the stereotype goes, alcoholics. But they're addicts with a story as well. Some make it out, some don't. As Jeff told me, there is no simple, fast, clean or easy solution to the homeless question. But of all the videos I've seen on the chronic homeless, and on those with an alcohol or drug problem, this is the best. I've watched it three times. I hope you'll take time to do the same.
Jeff has tried unsuccessfully to show the film in Corvalis, but he's hoping that by posting it online he'll raise awareness about homelessness and start conversations among those who are quick to see the homeless as stereotypes, not people. To see the movie free in its entirely, go to: .
Photo credit: NeverWalkAway.com