From the Streets to the Silver Screen: One Man’s Journey to Expose Youth Homelessness in America
Rotimi Rainwater has been writing and directing in the film and TV industry for the past 15 years, getting his start on projects like The Truth Anti-Tobacco Campaign and The Wonder Years. His own experience on the streets as a teenager inspired him to create the documentary, Lost in America, interviewing runaway youth across fifteen cities in the U.S.
According to the documentary the number of youth on the streets today is a staggering 1.6 to 2.8 million. The government isn’t even certain of the number. Five thousand unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness or suicide and there are only about 4,100 beds available nationwide for children. One out of three teens on the streets will also be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. Rainwater hopes to ignite a fury in the American people with this documentary and take back our nation’s future: our children. Risen sat down with Rainwater to talk about how his journey has prepared him to become a voice for these youth.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in La Jolla, California
Risen Magazine: Tell us a little about your growing up. I understand you wrote a book in the fourth grade called Cattle Creatures, which can still be found in the Conway Elementary school library in England. How did this impact your love of storytelling?
Rotimi Rainwater: I grew up in a single-parent household. We lived in public housing and my mom wasn’t around very much. She had to work a lot. I spent a lot of my time by myself and was raised by TV. My mom always told me to entertain myself. I was always creating stories and playing make-believe in my room. In fourth grade I decided to write a book about cows that came to life and terrorized the city. I had a friend illustrate it and yeah, that was my first foray. Then I started getting into theater. I played Oz in The Wizard of Oz and signed my first autograph. Then later I got into film.
I wanted to be a director as a child. I saw Excalibur at a drive-in theater and it set off my imagination. I thought I was going to find Excalibur and do all these things. I told my mom I would be a director right then, but didn’t have the support. I returned to that when I was in high school.
RM: You lived on the streets as a teenager. How did that experience shape you? How does it affect you today?
RR: I’m still discovering how living on the streets affected my life to this day. I didn’t deal with it for more than 20 years. When I realized that maybe I should deal with it and that I have something to tell, I realized how it much it affected me. I’m very introverted if I don’t know you or I’m in a room with a lot of people. The one thing I experienced while on the streets was rejection. I realized that you could never truly count on someone. It gives you an appreciative view of what you have in the moment. Parents will die, husbands and wives will leave, and kids will grow up. You can only rely on yourself. Whenever someone would leave, I would just think, “of course.” You don’t really get surprised by things anymore. The only thing I get surprised about is someone loving me for me.
RM: How do you react now when you see a homeless person on the street corner?
RR: If I see a homeless youth, I go right up to them and start talking. I don’t just give them money. They are not looking for money—they need a conversation or a sandwich. I ask them what they need. When I see a homeless adult, I at least try to engage them. I don’t look out in the corner of my eye and pass by. Most people pass by and ignore because they don’t want to acknowledge the dirt of it. I grew up with a lot of races. My dad was Native American, black and white. If you separate by race, gender, religion or riches, then you’ve already lost. I approach these kids like any other kids, with tenderness. Society wants to compartmentalize things; the blacks, the Jews, the gays, but it shouldn’t be like that. If you were in a car accident, and you were bleeding out, you wouldn’t look at race. You would say, “Help me my human brother!”
RM: You got your start in the film industry, working as a production assistant for projects like Swamp Thing, Superboy, and Passenger 57. How did you make the transition into being a filmmaker and producer?
RR: Determination and stubbornness. The first person that helped me get off the streets was in film. She invited me to come work for her as a production assistant in Florida. I started as a production assistant for Lexus and I worked my way up on that campaign. There was a company named Lamonte Films in Santa Monica which came to Orlando to do a shoot with the Budweiser horses in the Daytona 500 pit. I worked with them on that campaign and afterwards they gave me the opportunity to come to LA to work for them. They asked me if I had assistant director experience and I lied and said, “Sure!” I accepted and worked as a second director on The Wonder Years. But then they found out I wasn’t in the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and fired me.
I had learned on the streets that a “no” is just an opportunity for a “yes.” If you don’t hustle, you don’t eat. I lied and said I had done things before. Some friends of mine were doing the Truth Anti-Tobacco Campaign, which was street oriented and they asked me to come help direct.
RM: How has your faith impacted your career? Do you come up against a lot of opposition from the greater film community because of your faith?
RR: Yes, sometimes. People feel safer when you don’t want to take a stand. It’s so much easier to get an entertaining horror film than it is to make a movie with a message. I was offered a lot of jobs for entertainment and I was making a lot of money. But I’ll leave the popcorn movies to someone else. When I meet Jesus in Heaven, I want to say I tried. I want Him to say, “Good job.” I don’t want to do Transformers 75 and hear Him say, “Wow, great use of your life.”
I’m very inclusive with all religions. I think Lost in America is faith-based. There are issues that aren’t all faith, but I’ll allow the audience to judge it. So many agents rejected it so I went independent. Now they want to sell it. It just didn’t compute for them. Hollywood has to make a change—faith-based movies don’t have to be preachy. They don’t have to be Christian, Methodist or even have a strong religious overtone. If Jesus wasn’t religious, but was still faith-oriented, why do faith-based films have to be religious? My faith is a strong guiding light in my life. I hope what the film will accomplish is to inspire others to act more Christ-like. People have the misconception that kids just wake up one day wanting to leave their comfort zone and dig in the trash.
RM: Lost in America, takes an all-encompassing look at the youth homeless pandemic highlighting issues like human trafficking, the foster care system, youth rejected because of their sexuality, domestic violence, abuse, and more. What’s a big misconception that Americans have about one or all of these issues?
RR: Children are not on the street by choice. Ninety percent of the kids are there because they have to be, not because they choose to be. The ones who run away don’t last. Within a week they are home. Here are some common misconceptions:
One: If these kids wanted to, they could go get help. Wrong. There are 4,100 beds nationwide for homeless youth. Even if the numbers were only 500,000 homeless kids a year, every single night, in every single city, kids get turned away because there are not enough beds because there is not enough funding for more.
I hope what the film will accomplish is to inspire others to act more Christ-like.
Two: These kids are on the street because they want to do drugs. You’re 14 years old, and offered a drink or drugs on the street. You have to do whatever you have to do to have a safe place to stay—there is safety in numbers. Our society teaches us to self-medicate with pills and alcohol. These kids’ rough days are way more intense than our rough days. Their day sounds like: “someone raped me,” or “someone tried to sell me into prostitution.” I’m not going to be able to get through to them if they’re stressed, so I’ll buy them a drink and talk to them. If you think you wouldn’t turn to drugs or drinking on the street, try it for a week.
RM: Tell us about how you put together the team for this documentary. What’s the most challenging part about creating a film like this?
RR: Piecing the money as we went was the hardest part—and finding a team that was passionate enough about the mission. It really is a mission more than a project. No one on my team got paid much. You can’t survive off of traveling around on that. We did three rounds of crowd funding, the last round raising about $46,000 which was a huge thing for us. We got a lot of filming done. I had a young crew who had a serious passion for it. My director of photography had never been a director before. He is my friend’s son. We sat down and watched a bunch of films together and studied a ton. Another guy was the producer and second camera. We had a sound guy who had done sound for a year or two. They were all learning. I enjoy helping people learn and believe in their talent. I would tell them what I was looking for. It was like film school on the road. The first day of shooting was emotionally intense. Some of the guys got physically sick, but we all agreed that we were in and that this was important.
I almost lost my house in the process because I was using mortgage money to fund the film. I would work full time trying to raise money. I would spend a month editing and then show it at different viewings to gain awareness. I don’t know how I survived. I got a phone call from Chase Bank for the sell-by date on my house. People I didn’t even know came through for me and helped me keep my house. There are people in Washington D.C. that I owe big time for that.
RM: In one scene of the film, the camera gets turned on you to tell your story and it gets very emotional. How did you navigate those emotions while still pursuing the film?
RR: A lot of alone time. When we would be done shooting, the team would go out to dinner and I would spend time back at my hotel and think and process. I would also have the burden of their stories. I knew Eddie was sleeping in the abandoned house alone and Cecil was sleeping in the park that night. I couldn’t stay with them because we didn’t have insurance on our gear if it got stolen in the middle of the night. We stayed at the cheapest hotels we could find along the way. Some were dirty and bed bug infested, but it was all we could afford.
…she hadn’t eaten all day and she had a can of baked beans she was eating during our interview. I was so surprised when she offered me some. These kids were just so generous.
RM: What was one of the most surprising things you learned while doing interviews?
RR: How resilient these children were. We would try to help by giving them 40 or 50 bucks when we could. When I was interviewing Cecil, she hadn’t eaten all day and she had a can of baked beans she was eating during our interview. I was so surprised when she offered me some. These kids were just so generous.
RM: What is the government currently doing to help alleviate the problem of more than one million youth on the streets?
RR: Like we show in the film, Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Susan Collins keep pushing bills to help these youth and it keeps getting shot down. It’s estimated that 1.8 to 2.6 million youth are on the streets in America today. That’s what pisses me off is that the government doesn’t even know how many!
RM: What are you hoping to achieve with this film? How is it different from other documentaries about homelessness?
RR: This is the first documentary that takes a national view of youth homelessness. The others only focus on one city. I was trying to show people that homelessness is everywhere. Our crew went to 15 cities in the U.S. I wanted to show people the truth of youth homelessness and inspire people to make a change. I wanted to enrage Americans.
RM: How can people help the youth homeless crisis?
RR: We’re going to start a petition and a movement. Everyone needs to start forcing their government officials to make this issue important. Your government representatives say, “If you don’t let us know that this is a priority, we can’t do anything about it.” So we must speak up. We want this documentary to spearhead this change. There are so many organizations out there that are like bandages [just covering up a wound] but don’t deal with the root [of the problem]. The kids on the streets should be our number one cause.