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Originally published Tuesday, December 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

Face of homeless is changing

Unemployment is close to 7 percent. Every day, there are more than 100 bankruptcy filings in Washington state alone.

Seattle Times staff columnist

As a struggling actor, John Leguizamo was once homeless. He slept on a park bench. For one night.

That's nothing compared to what his character's family goes through in "Where God Left His Shoes," a film made by Paul Allen's independent film company, Vulcan Productions.

Frank Diaz, his wife and his young son and daughter are homeless for months and, when the credits roll, are still on the street — on Christmas Eve.

"It is quality, depressing stuff," Leguizamo told me.

But we don't need the movies for "quality, depressing" stuff. Unemployment is close to 7 percent. Every day, there are more than 100 bankruptcy filings in Washington state alone.

It's clear that this little film about one homeless family could reflect many more to come.

The film is being released in New York and Los Angeles, and on video on-demand.

But Vulcan has been allowing cities and organizations to hold screenings to raise awareness of family homelessness, and to raise money for those who help them.

Right now, "community premieres" are being organized in Los Angeles, Boston, Boise, Idaho, Columbia, S.C., and today in Seattle, where the film will be screened at 7 p.m. at Seattle Center's SIFF Cinema.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Bill Bloch, the project director for Seattle's Committee to End Homelessness; David Okimoto of the United Way of King County; Ruthann Howell of Family Services; Michael Ramos of the Church Council of Greater Seattle; and David Wertheimer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Last May, a preview of "Where God Left His Shoes" at Family Services' annual luncheon in Seattle helped raise $470,000. The film went on to win the Humanitas Prize for Best Sundance Feature Film.

Vulcan's backing of homeless awareness might strike some as ironic, since its development of South Lake Union surely priced some people out of their homes.

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But Vulcan insists its heart is in the right place: on the screen.

"This film can help open eyes and change the public perception of homelessness," said Michael Caldwell, Vulcan's director of motion-picture production.

He points to the film's realism, and lack of a neat Hollywood ending, while in "The Pursuit of Happyness" Will Smith's homeless father became a wealthy stockbroker.

"Their solution to ending homelessness was to become a millionaire," Caldwell said of that film.

I get the sense sometimes that we are weary of the homeless; their faces blend together in a stereotype of lazy, or addicted, or mentally ill.

But it seems to me, the face of the homeless is changing, becoming more familiar and closer to our own than ever before.

"The film is tapping into what I hope won't happen in this country," Leguizamo said. "Hopefully, it will motivate the government not to bail out the corporations, but to bail out everybody."

If nothing else, it should motivate the rest of us to think about what we have — and what we can do to help.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

The boy stole the picture.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

UPDATE - 8:10 PM
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