Striking a human nerve: Documentary focuses on homeless kids in Aurora

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AURORA | On the surface, the scene is a typical one for this time of year: five kids giddily darting around one another, desperately trying to avoid outstretched arms and the dreaded fate of being deemed “it.” Though for Rotimi Rainwater, the setting of this particular game of tag carries a sense of bitter sadness.

“If you didn’t see where they were, you would think they were just regular kids,” Rainwater said. “And they are regular kids, just having to deal with a terrible situation.”

Rainwater is a documentary filmmaker who visited Comitis last week as a part of his latest project, “Lost in America.” The film profiles runaway and homeless youth in cities across the country and aims to shed light on the issue of youth homelessness in the country.

Amid the gleaming smiles and gleeful laughs it’s tempting to overlook the situation Rainwater was referring to. But the looming shell of Aurora’s Comitis Crisis Center in the background makes any thoughts of normalcy and innocence all too fleeting.

All of the children are staying at Comitis, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth and their families. 

“They’re just looking for their own sense of normalcy,” Rainwater said of the group of young teenagers running around him, cutting and leaning to avoid being tagged. He says his documentary will focus on the resilience and desperation of America’s homeless children.

“My hope is that people will get angry, realize we aren’t doing anything about it and make it an issue,” Rainwater said. “People are dying, kids are in pain, so let’s do something about it.”

Approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of whom are children, experience homelessness in a given year according to a report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, the organization that referred Rainwater to Comitis. The number of available shelter beds for homeless youth is vastly disproportionate to the overall population of youths living without a home. The NCH reports there is only one bed available for every 125 homeless youth. 

The services at Comitis are also stretched thin. The center functioned at 99 percent capacity in 2013 and housed 987 individuals for emergency overnight stays through the first two quarters of 2014, which nearly matches the 1,100 emergency overnight stays Comitis had for the entirety of 2012, according to Comitis spokesman James Gillespie.

The issue of youth homelessness is a personal one for Rainwater, having experienced it firsthand in his late teens and early 20s. After his mother contracted cancer in 1988, Rainwater dropped out of the Navy and returned to his home of Orlando, Florida, to take care of her while she was ill. She was soon moved to a hospice, leaving Rainwater no place to stay other than his Isuzu Impulse. The car was eventually towed, and because Rainwater didn’t have the money to retrieve it, he was forced to stay in public parks and beneath overpasses. A girlfriend eventually allowed Rainwater to move in with her, and later helped him break into the film industry in Orlando.

Rainwater said that his experience on the streets and eventual success in the entertainment business lead to a moral imperative for him to document the issue.

“Seeing the kids and how big of an issue this is, and realizing the access I have, it would be a mistake if I didn’t do something,” Rainwater said.

He and his team have traveled to more than 15 cities, speaking with youth currently living on the streets, politicians and individuals helping to facilitate outreach programs and maintain shelters like Comitis.

While in Colorado, Rainwater visited Comitis for three days, sat down for one-on-one interviews with three youths staying at the shelter and accompanied staff members on a ride-along as a part of the organization’s new street outreach program. He also spoke with several people around Confluence Park in Downtown Denver, one of whom the team is planning to revisit during a second trip to the city in September.

Gillespie applauded the documentary’s efforts for shining light on the issue, though he urged those concerned about it to show their support through empathy.

“Comitis is happy to participate in the national conversation on homeless youth,” he said. “Mr. Rainwater is using a variety of emotions to convey his message, anger being one of them. While anger is certainly part of the conversation of youth homelessness, we would encourage the community to take that anger and turn it into compassion, with the hope being to change the life of another right here in Aurora.”