Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County

“What’s the worst part about being a homeless kid?”, asks the off-screen voice. Josh rubs his face and tries to look away. “Sucks,” he says. Asked why, he looks up, briefly. “Everybody asking dumb questions.”

Josh is six-years-old. One of several children profiled in Alexandra Pelosi’s Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County, he lives with his family — five people and four dogs — in a motel room. Josh’s sister works at McDonalds. He spends his mornings at school, and late afternoons in the motel parking lot, kicking plastic bags, chasing balls, watching the older kids hang out. Their mom, a 42-year-old widow, has worked at Disneyland for two years now and still can’t make enough to pay for an apartment. She’s hoping to find a second job because, she says, “I do nursing.” Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi asks, “You work at the happiest place on earth: is your family the happiest family on earth?” It’s another dumb question.

It’s also a smart one, the sort of question — apparently guileless, just as plainly canny — with which Pelosi regularly invites her documentary subjects to comment on their own situations as they take her on. A friendly interviewer who’s got concerns and jokes too, she puts people at ease as well as just slightly on edge. She owns her politics and heritage (as Nancy’s daughter), inviting interviewees to question her and even make fun, as George Bush does in Journeys with George and Sean Hannity does in Right America: Feeling Wronged: Some Voices From the Campaign Trail. Pelosi doesn’t tend to appear on screen (she’s unseen in Homeless), unlike some other recognizable documentary makers.

Still, she brings a recognizable energy to and shape to her films: whether gently articulating or seeming to embody challenges, Pelosi helps her subjects to make their cases. How you read the films’ presentations of those cases is another story.

In the case of Homeless, the cases seem pretty much endlessly complicated (the film points out that one in 50 children face homelessness every year), as parents and teachers do their best to guide children away from the most obvious ends of their difficult lives. Josh’s mother’s answers to Pelosi’s query about their “happiest family” offer options. At first, she plays along. “Kinda, sorta,” she smiles. Then her oldest boy, 11-year-old Zack, chimes in: the place is crowded, the family has arguments. His mother sighs, “He’s already got a probation officer, he already pulled a stupid stunt,” that is, a title card reveals, “burglary charges.” Again, Pelosi asks why. Zack explains: “Some of us kids want something that other people have, so we just take it.”

He talks tough, but Zack is a kid, whose mom is busy and whose life is in turmoil. Like the other kids living in the motel here, he’s struggling to make sense of not having a home, of feeling worried, of being hungry and resentful and afraid. Homeless isn’t digging terribly deeply into specific situations, how jobs were lost or if violence has been felt. Instead, it listens to the kids it shows, as they describe their experiences and their responses. Nine-year-old Dilan says he fights with his brother Ben, who’s seven, “because I don’t like this room, it’s too small.” Outside, they pass kids dancing and playing loud music on the motel balcony. “Let’s go up the stairs,” Dilan tells Pelosi. That’s where the older residents keep their drugs. It’s a game, to hunt out their hiding places. “Actually,” Dilan says, “the whole place is full of drugs.”

Dilan and Ben’s 10-year-old sister Celine has a different set of issues. All the children attend the Project Hope School, where homeless students K-8th grade can get an education — plus breakfast and lunch every day — even if their addresses change. But second through fourth grades have to share the same room and teacher, which is distracting for Celine. Though her teacher assures her, “You don’t have to be the big sister in this class, you can let me be that,” the girl’s anxious face suggests this is more easily said than done. Her brothers are loud and disruptive; at home, she’s supposed to look after them — in addition to washing the dishes and doing the laundry, among other chores.

Their mom, a CAN, works nights at a hospital (the pay is better by $1.90 an hour during the late shift), and their dad just lost his job at Target. He appears here lying on the bed that fills most of the room they rent, their new baby beside him. “We have to teach ’em they need to earn the right to do what they want, like play with their toys.” It’s clear even in the few minutes she’s on screen that Celine has absorbed this lesson all too well, feeling anxious and responsible for maintaining order amid diurnal chaos.

The film shows why she might feel that way, with long shots of the motel at night under a soundtrack filled with sirens. Six-year-old Rudee trots through the parking lot to watch a policeman responding to a 911 call for domestic violence. Pelosi asks if she knows why the police are here. “I have no idea,” she says, watching the show. “It’s time to go to bed Rudee,” Pelosi calls after her. “Your mom said you gotta go to bed.” You haven’t heard Rudee’s mom say this, but you understand completely why Pelosi’s following behind the child with her camera and suggestion. Her frustration is palpable, and it helps to shape the film.

In this and other scenes, the kids are utterly on their own. Rudee remembers, “The worst place I ever slept was the bushes” (“People were looking at us,” she says). Kiera, who’s nine, frets she might be kidnapped (it hasn’t happened, that she knows of, but it might). Josh dives into a dumpster repeatedly, against the motel manager’s instructions, to recover toys discarded by an evicted family (he walks away with a stuffed green frog, triumphant). Rudee calls her father from school to beg him to pick her up, because she has a stomachache: the school has no nurses. When he can’t come (and her mom doesn’t have bus fare), she has to wait on a bench until the school van comes at 5PM, tearful and pained. Eight-year-old Cassidy comes to school one morning with her head shaved: she’s got lice, she says, her eyes just starting to water.

The children have precious little chance to “just be kids”. Instead, they work every day to sort out what’s happening, to keep a hold of themselves and some sense of family. Still, they answer all manner of questions, honestly and patiently. “Do you think God knows you’re homeless?” Pelosi asks. Eight-year-old Jennifer assures her, “God knows what he’s doing. You might not have a home, but you might have food to eat or a school to go to. He only gives you the things you really need, not the things you wish for.”

RATING 8 / 10