Anyone who has visited Santa Monica’s bustling Third Street Promenade has witnessed the city’s homeless problem, which is explored in an even-handed, mostly unsentimental fashion in this Discovery Times Channel documentary, which frames the issue while offering no real solutions. The cable co-venture of Discovery and the New York Times generally maintains a low profile — available as it is in about 35 million homes — but this particular hour should resonate for anyone within hailing distance of the 310 area code.
In this doc filmed over a two-year period, producer, director and cinematographer Marilyn Braverman focuses on four homeless people living in the oceanside city’s Lincoln Park. Each has reached this point of hopelessness for his own reasons, though the mix of alcohol, drug abuse and mental illness is never far from the conversation.
Various homeless advocates and elected officials are interviewed, yet beyond explaining the combination of social services and free meals that have made Santa Monica “a very attractive place to be if you’re homeless,” listening closely reveals that no one has an answer for moving people off the streets.
Nor do the homeless depicted help their cause, such as Rick, who disappeared for months during the filming because of a rock cocaine addiction; or Simon, a former engineer whose descent into alcoholism followed a family tragedy.
Other than Brian Keane’s sensitive score, Braverman mostly brings an objective eye to the production. The heartbreaking nature of the personal stories, however, is inevitably balanced by hopelessness and frustration, since those profiled often appear unable or unwilling to help themselves, just as the government does little more than shuffle them around thanks to short-term NIMBY (not in my backyard) laws. When one woman, Donna, is ticketed for sleeping in a church doorway, it’s hard to fathom what such bookkeeping is supposed to accomplish.
Santa Monica may not be paradise, exactly, but its compassionate stance toward the homeless has been a source of controversy, seized upon as an illustration of the city’s liberal (and therefore, in the eyes of some, misguided) politics. From that perspective, “Homeless in Paradise” achieves something by compelling us at least to take a look at the homeless, in much the way a non-mechanical type stares at a stalled car engine. Sure, we know it’s broken; the mystery lies in how to fix it.