Thursday, April 24, 2014

Behind the Screen: Housing First in the Arctic.

Note: Moving Pictures is featuring the filmmakers from the CSWE 2014 Virtual Film Festival sharing the stories behind the making of their films. Contact us to learn how you can see the films and vote for the Virtual Ovation Award. The award consists of a $500 prize and will be presented to the top-ranked film in the Virtual Film Festival, as determined by the audience. 

Filmmaker and MSW student Cory Gordon explains below the background to Housing First in the Arctic, her film highlighting homelessness in Alaska of individuals with mental illness.

Filmmaker Cory Gordon
In fall 2012, I started my master’s of social work program at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). As part of the program, we had to choose practicum placements. I wanted to work in a setting where I could combine my film skills with my passion for serving people who experience severe mental illness. My adviser recommended the Housing and Homeless Program of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS). ACMHS is Alaska’s largest mental health provider. 

I interviewed with Corrine O’Neill, the housing clinical manager and the housing expert in my film. She was open to the idea, and we signed a practicum contract later that week. In the first semester, I learned about all the different aspects of the program. My main role at that time was to do outreach to individuals in shelters and homeless camps in Anchorage who were experiencing a severe mental illness (SMI). I assessed them to see if they could benefit from services. It was a profoundly moving experience to meet people sleeping in the snow and in the overcrowded shelters. 

One of my proudest achievements was building a rapport with a young man who had spent years on the streets and was debilitated by his mental illness. I was able to introduce this man to a case manager who found him permanent housing and connected him with wraparound services. This client’s story is not unusual; I saw many individuals get help through ACMHS and the Housing First (HF) model.

The HF model is an innovative approach to house those who are chronically homeless and have a severe mental illness or co-occurring addictions. The HF model provides people with housing without expectation of psychiatric or substance abuse treatment. Research shows that it is an effective way to serve individuals, which also saves money for communities.

By the end of the first semester, I knew that I wanted to create a film to show the HF model as a solution to homelessness for the SMI population in Anchorage. I also wanted to show how ACMHS helps Anchorage’s most vulnerable people and to give a face and voice to homelessness in the community. This was very important to me because individuals who are homeless and experience an SMI and/or substance abuse disorder are highly stigmatized. It was especially important that I create a film that could educate and influence people’s perceptions of HF, because at that time in the community, there was great deal of resistance to new HF facilities.


Sidebar: Cory Gordon's Advice to Social Work Students New to Filmmaking

I wanted to tell the stories of two individuals who went from homelessness to having a place to live—two clients who would be willing to tell their story, who were stable, and who had spent a substantial amount of time being homeless. This process took much meaningful thought and time. I talked with the ACMHS case managers and counselors and was able to narrow the selection to Oretha and Paul.

Within a few minutes of meeting Oretha and Paul, I knew that they had stories that needed to be told. As I was talking with them, I was touched by many of the obstacles they had faced in their past, and I was inspired by their resilience and courage to move on. I told them about the film and asked if they were interested in participating. I took extra steps to ensure that they understood the goals of the film and their consent to be in the film. I let them know that they had control of the interview process, and they did not have to discuss anything that they did not want to discuss. They both agreed to be in the film. 

One of the most challenging parts of the filmmaking process was obtaining a camera, as I do not own one. The university checked out a camera and tripod to me at no charge. I bought a small $10 lavalier microphone. It was not the most impressive setup, but it did the job.

The film premiered at ACMHS, with the staff, Oretha, and Paul invited to watch. It was a nerve-racking process, because that was the first time everyone, including Oretha and Paul, had watched the film. I was most nervous about Oretha and Paul’s approval because I wanted them to be happy with how they were represented. My nerves were calmed when I heard Oretha laughing during the film and when Paul gave me a hug afterward. I gave them copies of the film, and they were both excited about sharing it with their families.

I wanted to create a film that would impact those who had the most influence when it comes to HF and homelessness in the community. I wanted to create a film of which Oretha and Paul would be proud. They wanted to tell their stories because they wanted to help others who were like them. I was inspired by the staff at ACMHS, who work consistently to serve the SMI homeless population in Anchorage. The staff treats their clients with respect and dignity, and gives them the ability to live an independent life. Corrine, the HF manager in the film, is one of the most determined leaders I have met and the greatest advocate of homeless individuals in Alaska.

Since the film was completed a year ago, ACMHS has used the film as a community training tool. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development posted the film on its website. It was an official selection of the Anchorage International Film Festival and was nominated for the 2014 NASW Media Awards. Currently, I am evaluating the film as part of my MSW research project. What has made the film successful is that I am passionate about the subject and was inspired by the bravery and big hearts of Oretha and Paul and the hard work of the ACMHS staff. The staff at ACMHS and my peers and professors at UAA made this film possible. 

It is important for social workers to embrace film. I am blessed to be part of the social work program at UAA. The program has allowed me to dedicate my graduate school studies to using film as a tool to empower people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. I believe the number of social workers who are filmmakers will continue to increase just as the use of social service nonprofit film has increased. Social workers who are trained filmmakers have the ability to use film to advocate, educate, and influence social and political action for disadvantaged groups. We live in a digitally and technologically driven society. Film is a powerful force we can either embrace or waste. I think it is our duty as social workers to keep up with the ever-expanding media-driven society. Film enables us to accomplish what the NASW Code of Ethics describes as being fundamental to social work—bringing attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living (NASW, 2008).

Cory Gordon’s Advice for Social Work Students New to Filmmaking
Take a risk
Realize that the film won’t be perfect
Be passionate about the subject of your film
Be the expert in that subject before you start filming
Plan, plan, and plan before you touch the camera
Tell a story
Be ethical
Know your audience
Keep online films short
Practice time management:
creating a film is time consuming and involves many steps

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