Santa Monica, California. Pristine landscapes. Restaurants galore. Homes with views as stunning as their property values. The kicker? Two-to-five percent of its population is homeless, and that number is growing because the city takes a very compassionate stand on the problem. So compassionate, in fact, that it’s threatening to forever alter the reasons tourists come to visit, and that’s making way for new “anti-poverty” laws. “Homeless in Paradise” is a documentary that focuses on all sides of this problem, with the spotlight being thrown on four homeless people: Rick, Donna, Simon and Faye.
The reasons people are homeless are as varied as one would expect. There’s addiction, hard luck, mental illness and more. Often times these issues are combined, which only serves to compound an already difficult problem. Santa Monica tried to address all this by creating a shelter, feeding the hungry and trying to get them into the system so that they could be better served. This, of course, attracts more homeless people and irritates shoppers and business owners.
Homelessness is not an issue that is going to magically disappear anytime soon. In fact, all factors indicate that it will only get worse. To its credit, this film does the problem justice by focusing on the four people and presenting their very tragic stories, but that strength is also its weakness.
The problem of homelessness is so vast that you can’t focus on individuals. You have to focus on the system — something the documentary touches on, but doesn’t spend nearly enough time exploring. Capitalism in America has reached a point where “rugged individualism” is demanded in almost all sectors of society (except at the upper corporate levels, as those businesses would never survive without subsidies, tax breaks and the ability to influence laws), but people aren’t given the means to really control their living situations. Homeless opponents can cry “personal responsibility” all they want, but in this culture the only responsibility one really has is the responsibility to consume. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, and there never will be. That’s what keeps wages down and profits up; supply and demand also works with people. As a result, a certain segment of society will fall by the wayside through no fault of its own. This documentary should have focused on that issue with as much intensity as it does the four individuals.
“Homeless in Paradise” wins points for investigating this problem from all sides, and while it humanizes things (a necessary step for people who have never considered the homeless human), it lets the real villain off the hook. And if there’s anything that can be taken from this documentary, it’s that the old ways aren’t working, and draconian laws will only lead to more problems … as will more compassion without teeth. If you read between the lines, as the more perceptive have surely already done, you will see that the economic system in place needs homelessness, unemployment and poverty to survive, and that’s what must really be addressed in order to truly solve this problem. Unfortunately, for many homeless people, it’s already too late.