January 27, 2011
Vol: 18 No: 04

News

Orange County’s “motel kids” live in Disney’s shadow

By Rosette Royale / Assistant Editor

Alexandra Pelosi's documentary shows the reality outside the Magic Kingdom

Alexandra Pelosi spent three months in motels near Disneyland filming homeless children and their working parents. Photo courtesy HBO

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What would inspire someone to make a documentary about homeless children? If you’re filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, the fount of inspiration would be your own child.

A couple years back, Pelosi, who lives in Manhattan, was walking down the street with her then two-year-old son. They came upon a homeless man. “Mommy, why’s that man homeless?” he asked her. Pelosi didn’t have an answer.

Placed in a situation many parents know—of being stumped by a question your child poses—she set out to find the answer. The journey to addressing her son’s query led her, ultimately, to Orange County, California, and the families that live in motels there. Pelosi chose a week-to-week motel directly across the street from Disneyland. The nation’s playground provided a job to numerous parents in the motel—parking cars, wearing character suits—only not enough money to rent an apartment. Hence, their motel life. And while the parents worked, the children either hung out at the motel or went to a school that only taught homeless youth.

Over the course of a summer, Pelosi, joined by her husband and two children, stayed in a room and filmed off and on with her handheld digital camera. In making the movie “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” Pelosi, who works for HBO—and is the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—faced a number of struggles, the most surprising of them arising after “Homeless” premiered: a vocal backlash against the film’s inclusion of a school that some felt segregated homeless children.

“It’s amazing to me everyone reads politics into everything,” said Pelosi, in Seattle for a Jan. 20 screening of the documentary, sponsored by Seattle University’s Center for Strategic Communication and Project on Family Homelessness. “I’m not saying this isn’t a political topic, because it is, especially because you’re talking about affordable housing and living wage and working poor. I get that it’s political, but I’m surprised at how [politically] loaded homeless kids are.”

A self-admitted “behind-the-camera” kind of person who’s no “policy expert,” she didn’t expect the film to generate such strong politicized reactions. But Pelosi inadvertently touched upon a live-wire topic for some working in policy circles: a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act.

A piece of legislation initially signed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, the McKinney-Vento Act, as it stands today, offers assistance to the country’s homeless citizens. Written into the act at a later date were provisions that states must provide homeless children free transportation to and from either their first public school or the last school they attended, even if the school is in another district. The act also proclaimed there should be no separate public schools for homeless children, except for a small number grandfathered into the legislation. The school Pelosi showed in her film happened to be one of those grandfathered schools. “People are really against it,” Pelosi said of the school many of the motel’s young residents attended. “Nobody thinks it’s a good idea. People think they’re enabling instead of providing them this incredible opportunity and nurturing them the way they need to be nurtured.”

But Pelosi felt justified in showing the school, because it provided an opportunity to tap into an important emotion: hope. “You have to show some hope, otherwise you’re just a voyeur, like, ‘Look, at these miserable, sad people. Keep watching.’ You have to show the school because the school was the ‘Someone cares about them, someone’s trying to do something about it. Somebody’s trying, somewhere.’”

The kids in the motels, she realized, craved attention, a notion verified by the on-camera confessions of several young people themselves. With their parents at work, often no one was around watching the children, so her motel subjects welcomed Pelosi into their rooms. “I became like a friend to them,” she recalled. “I’d come over, I’d let them sit in my rental car and listen to music, I was just like an escape to them.” They granted her access to their lives. But access came with complications. “It was harder, after time: You could see the kids’ lives falling apart and there was nothing you could do about it.”

Her own kids even felt the strain. A swine flu outbreak hit the motel. Some of the motel children got lice—in the film, one young girl, Cassidy, had most of her blond hair shaved off because of it—and residents dealt with bedbug infestations. Even though Pelosi’s kids didn’t catch the flu and their room remained free of bedbugs and lice, the strain of living in one small room under such tough conditions began to wear on them. Her husband demanded they move to a nearby hotel, the Residence Inn, but Pelosi balked. “Oh, isn’t that just ‘Let them eat cake’? We should move across the street and eat at the Cheesecake Factory?’” Eventually she gave in. She and her family left the motel she’d been in for two months.

But that didn’t mean Pelosi left the motel kids. And they certainly didn’t leave their newfound friend. Her relocation provided them an unexpected boon: Pelosi suddenly had hotel amenities to share with motel dwellers. “It was kind of funny because they knew [one of the motel kids] at the desk: ‘Hey, Zack, how you doing?’” she remembered. “They didn’t know he was a homeless kid from across the street. They thought he was a rich, spoiled kid who got to spend his summer at Disneyland. And they had free Internet. ... They had free meals: a breakfast buffet, which is out till noon, and then they had these barbecues in the afternoons.”

Through it all, Pelosi never lost the irony: that while parents worked full-time at Disneyland for $9-plus an hour, they couldn’t afford rent, much less the entry fee to the park. “How much do they charge for a ticket to get into Disneyland? How much does it cost for the dream? Fifty [dollars], something like that, right? So charge $55 and pay your people a living wage. I don’t know if that’s the answer, but build some affordable housing.” [Actual cost for a three-day pass to Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure Park: ages 3-9, $165 ($55.33 a day); ages 10 and up, $186 ($62 a day).]

Politics aside, Pelosi said she saw a question underneath the issue of motel kids and their struggling parents, one that she was sure all people, regardless of ideology, could get behind: “Don’t you think that if you work 40 hours a week in America, you deserve to have a roof over your head?”

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