What did Shift the Bay partner and Table Member Hamilton Families do when they received funding from Google.org and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki for a homelessness awareness campaign? They handed the camera over to families the housing justice advocacy and direct service organization serves. The resulting narrative films have since been picked up by the New York Times and shown at local, regional, national, and international film festivals– cultivating a cultural platform that elevates the experience of homelessness beyond the traditional reach of everyday advocates and generates momentum for solutions that meet the needs of the moment.
Up Close: Hamilton Families demonstrates the power of storytelling to uplift the realities of family homelessness
On November 21, 2019, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki stood with San Francisco Mayor London Breed on the Hamilton Families Shelter rooftop to announce a $1.35M grant to the agency. A portion of this funding was to be allocated to a family homelessness awareness media campaign… but why? Isn’t the city’s pervasive homelessness problem already highly visible?
When people hear the term “homeless”, the image of a single individual living on the street typically comes to mind. This limited portrait obscures the reality that families with children also experience chronic homelessness. These unhoused families consist of at least one parent with a child under the age of 18— most of which are headed by a young, low-income, BIPOC single mother— and are more likely to live in a shelter, motel, or doubled up with other families, rather than on the street. Their homelessness tends to result from situational poverty created by an event or temporary condition (including domestic violence, job loss, divorce, illness, etc.) or generational poverty.
These families are the “invisible homeless”, and Hamilton Families is leading the fight to systematically end their experience of homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area.
→ With Shift the Bay’s housing and racial justice framework in mind, the agency took a two-fold approach to its narrative campaign: first, by cultivating its connections through a robust, publicly available story bank to elevate personal experiences of homelessness; and second, by uplifting the need for local responses and regional solutions that meet the needs of the moment. Here were the outcomes:
FINDING HOME Film Series [Trailer]
In addition to a three-part promotional video series with the San Francisco-based BAYCAT studio (check out this example!), Hamilton Families and BAVC Media produced three documentary short films centering first-hand accounts of families experiencing homelessness. Each of these families has been directly served by Hamilton Families.
- “About a Home” by filmmakers Elizabeth Lo and Daniel Chein
Synopsis: Precious Sarria and her family experienced housing insecurity for over two years. After working with Hamilton Families and transitioning into housing, they documented their lives in this video diary compilation during the COVID-19 pandemic to raise awareness for the rising homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area. The video diary series film has been distributed to local and regional film festivals (Slamdance 2021 Film Festival, Cinequest Online Film Festival 2021, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival, Champs-Élysées Film Festival).
- “What You’ll Remember” by filmmakers Erika Cohn and Marcia Jarmel
Synopsis: Elizabeth’s and David’s tale is a love story: their love for each other, their love for the Bay Area, and most importantly their love for their four beautiful children. While struggling with homelessness for years, Hamilton Families helped them find temporary housing in their Transitional Housing units so their family could stabilize. However, affordable housing continues to be out of reach for this family with the risk of experiencing homelessness ever looming. Listen as they tell their story through a love letter to their children and make a plea to the Bay Area for support in finding a place to call home, permanently. This narrated story has been licensed to the New York Times Op-Docs and premiered in June 2021 at the DOCNYC Film Festival.
- “Hogar” by filmmakers Emily Cohen-Ibañez and Kristina Motwani
Synopsis: Maria is everything you would want in a mom, and the love she has for her son is unmatched. In this bilingual, graphic animated children’s film, we get to hear Maria’s story, and the efforts she goes to make a safe home for her son with the help of Hamilton Families, before and after experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. This bilingual, animated children’s film is currently being distributed to national and international film festivals.
2021 Homelessness Awareness Month
For National Homelessness Awareness Month, Hamilton Families programmed a Community Forum centering a different narrative-shifting theme each week of November 2021. The series was conceived as a response to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s call to “functionally end family homelessness” within five years due to its success in centering innovation and collective action across sectors.
- Week 1: The state of family homelessness and housing insecurity in the SF Bay Area
- Week 2: Innovative approaches to overcome homelessness challenges
- Week 3: Creating positive narrative discourse on homelessness and housing insecurity
- Week 4: A call-to-action to address racial equity in housing justice
- Week 5: Philanthropy and family homelessness
→ Here’s what Hamilton Families learned from implementing Shift the Bay narrative strategies throughout their campaign:
Elevate voices with lived experiences
Opening hearts and minds requires open ears, especially for stories of lived experience. As the BayArea continues to move mountains to fight for our community’s present and future, Hamilton Families found it was critical to intentionally create space for less doing and more listening. Centering the voices of our community members helps to breathe life into our values and demonstrates the impact we can make by taking action. Not only do these direct experiences humanize the realities of living unhoused in the Bay Area, but they have real implications for successful policy development as well: stories ensure that our advocacy and innovation reflect those with the strongest ability to support, uplift, and improve the lives of families experiencing homelessness.
Prioritize peer-to-peer connectivity
In addition to uplifting the stories of those with lived experiences, Hamilton Families also found success in amplifying the stories of individual supporters and housing justice advocates. They found that the average person trusts their peers’ perspectives more than that of the organization promoting the cause itself. Providing multiple options and platforms for supporters to connect with the work in public, open forums was key for the success of this awareness campaign.
→ Next Steps
Hamilton Families is planning the next iteration of its awareness campaign by incorporating two additional elements into its future communications strategy: 1) an advisory board composed of Hamilton Families clients modeled after the Residents United Network; and 2) an incentivized speakers’ bureau which encourages families participating in Hamilton Families’ programs to share their story and uplift the lived experiences of families experiencing homelessness. Following the success of its 2021 Homelessness Awareness Month programs, Hamilton Families is hosting an in-person community forum event, “Ending Homelessness means Ending Poverty”, with Shift the Bay partner All Home to kick off Homelessness Awareness Month in November 2022.
Check out this year’s Homelessness Awareness Month resources here!