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It Could be You: Documentary Film Makes Poverty Relatable


Panelists Ken Walters, Cheri Honkala, Donald Garner, and Harry Gantz.
Photo by Tom Stoelker

As many New Yorkers debate the merits of the “poor door,”—a separate entrance for affordable units in a market rate apartment tower—New York city council member Helen Rosenthal told a crowd gathered at Fordham that the terminology is all wrong.

“It may be a separate door, but it’s not a ‘poor door,’” she said. While the concept of separate doors may be “outrageous,” Rosenthal said they are hardly representative of poverty.

“These people will have an apartment. And poverty is not something that we can talk about in a flip way,” she said.

Rosenthal spoke at an Oct. 7 screening of American Winter, an Emmy-nominated documentary that portrays the post-2008 economic struggles of eight American families in and around Portland, Oregon. The film focuses on working-class Americans who are encountering shelters and food pantries for the first time.

The Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) and the College of Mount Saint Vincent sponsored the screening and community forum that followed, titled “Thawing of the American Dream.” Broadcast journalist Hugh Hamilton moderated.
Director Harry Gantz said that his focus on the struggling working class was intended to draw in viewers who might not otherwise relate to the poor. Since the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan famously vilified the “welfare queen,” the poor have become blamed for the plight of the middle class. Gantz said the rift between the middle class and the poor has grown over the years, thus fostering an atmosphere where cutbacks in poverty programs? i.e., the nation’s social safety net, are considered “acceptable” by the middle class?

Councilmember Rosenthal

According to the film, Portland’s safety net had snapped. Poor families have been reduced to using limited services at overwhelmed nonprofits that are quickly running out of funds.

The message of the film was made all the more graphic when panelist Cheri Honkala admitted that she faces possible eviction next week, after falling more than $2000 behind in her rent. Honkala, founder of the Philadelphia-based Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, called her situation far from unique in her neighborhood, where she said even the local minister came to her for help with his own eviction notice. Honkala said awareness must be raised.

“Just as slaves were brought before congregations during slavery, it’s time to do the same with poor families,” she said. “Bring the poor into the classrooms, into the synagogues, and into the churches [so that]those who are being affected can tell their own story.”

Panelist Ken Walters, director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, said that his organization doesn’t approach his the poor as “clients” but as partners in an effort to engage leadership through advocacy, like testifying at city hall. He said that even the most hard-nosed politician would find it difficult not to be moved by face-to-face encounters.

Panelist Donald Garner a recruiter with New York City Department of Education and a doctoral student at GSS, said the film’s stories about children were sadly familiar.

“As a recruiter in the South Bronx I know all too well the narratives of living in the shelter and how that affects kids’ educational trajectory,” he said.

Walters said that concern for the poor, once an American value, has become less and less a part of the national dialogue.

“In the last election there was a more of a focus on middle and working class. You never heard about poor,” he said. “This documentary makes it real.”

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