The best movies to shine a light on homelessness

With ongoing wars and an increasingly dire refugee crisis, there are over 100 million people homeless of some kind worldwide, and the exact figure is likely much higher. Despite being one of the most dominant and powerful countries on the planet, the United States currently has around half a million people living without shelter. Since around the 1980s, American cinema has portrayed the heartbreaking shortcomings of our society, highlighting the struggles so many individuals go through just to survive and make ends meet.



The epidemic of homelessness is a constant reality that needs to be tackled, and filmmakers have often set out to portray the hard truths of the displaced and oppressed, giving audiences insight into their plight and daily challenges. With America in the state of a severe housing crisis, in which homes are more expensive and inaccessible than ever, there will likely be more powerful movies to chronicle this urgent situation.

From gripping documentaries to gripping biographical dramas, from feel-good comedies to heartbreaking visuals, the silver screen has tackled the issue of homelessness and provided thought-provoking insight and awareness. Will Smith was nominated for an Oscar when he portrayed Chris Gardner alongside the actor’s son, Jaden, in The pursuit of happiness, movingly showing the single father’s efforts to build a better future for his child while living on the streets. Maggie Smith reprized her stage role as Mary Shepherd in the uplifting film The lady in the van, appearing as an elderly woman living in a Bedford van in Camden for 15 years. Here are some of the best movies to shine a light on homelessness.


8 Mirikitani’s cats

Linda Hattendorf directed the 2006 documentary Mirikitani’s cats, which depicts the filmmaker’s relationship with a Japanese American artist named Jimmy Mirikitani, an elderly homeless painter who sells his creations featuring mostly cats but also devastating scenes from his imprisonment in an internment camp during World War II world. Living on the streets of Manhattan in 2001, Hattendorf met and eventually invited Mirikitani to stay with her after 9/11 devastated her neighborhood.

Together, the duo worked to reintegrate the entertainer into society by tracking down his social security card and passport while ultimately reuniting the man with his surviving sister and distant cousin. The uplifting image shows Hattendorf’s efforts to find Mirikitani his own apartment and delves into his tragic story and the circumstances that led him to become homeless in New York.

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seven The pursuit of happiness

The always outstanding Will Smith teamed up with his son Jaden to headline the 2006 biographical drama The pursuit of happiness, telling the touching story of businessman and motivational speaker Chris Garnder as he struggled with homelessness during a year in San Francisco in 1981. Having been evicted with his five-year-old son Christopher Jr …and with less than $22 to his name, Chris attempts to use his experience as a salesman to save funds to get them out of homeless shelters and off the streets for good.

Related: These Are Will Smith’s Best Movies, Ranked

The real Chris Gardner felt it was crucial that he share his experience in order to solve widespread social problems, saying: “When I talk about household alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, illiteracy and all these problems – these are universal problems; these are not just limited to postcodes.


6 The Lady in the Van

Based on the memoir of the same name by Alan Bennett, the 2015 British comedy-drama The Lady in the Van recounts the author’s 15-year relationship with Mary Shepherd, an eccentric elderly woman who “temporarily” parked her dilapidated Bedford van in Bennett’s driveway in Camden, eventually residing there for a decade and a half. The gripping film depicts the couple’s endearing interactions, as Bennett eventually discovers that the mysterious homeless lady was once a revered concert pianist, having played Chopin at the Proms while also twice attempting to become a nun.

Maggie Smith is exceptional as Shepherd (later revealed to be Margaret Fairchild), having previously portrayed the quirky but capable woman in the 1999 stage play and the 2009 radio adaptation; she won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actress for her portrayal.


5 time out of mind

Poignantly tackling heavy topics like homelessness and family estrangement, the 2014 drama time out of mind features Richard Gere as the unfortunate George, a man who must deal with displacement on the streets of New York, seeking refuge in Bellevue Hospital where he develops an unlikely friendship with a kind but unstable companion.

The captivating image depicts George’s struggles to recognize his homelessness and the obstacles he encounters when trying to apply for public benefits; The driving force behind George is the possibility that he can reconnect with his daughter Maggie, in hopes of finding forgiveness for his past misdeeds. time out of mind received critical acclaim for its moving performances and insightful depiction of homelessness, with The Village Voice calling the drama “an experiment in empathy, an examination of bureaucracy and the banality of street life, and of a film that many will find difficult”.


4 The audience

Boasting an impressive ensemble cast led by Emilio Estevez (who also directed and wrote the pic), Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater, the 2018 drama The audience depicts the tension-filled standoff between Cincinnati police and a large group of homeless people seeking refuge in a broken down public library when a brutal cold front hits the city. What initially begins as a nonviolent act of civil disobedience quickly escalates into a tense confrontation between the authorities and often marginalized homeless people seeking shelter from the storm, drawing media attention in the process. The audience offers a serious look at some of the nation’s toughest issues, tackling the topics of mental health and homelessness while educating the public on the topic of social disobedience.


3 The fisher king

The late and great Robin Williams stars alongside Jeff Bridges in the 1991 fantasy comedy-drama The fisher king, which centers on radio shock jock Jack Lucas (Bridges) as he tries to find redemption for a tragic mistake he made on the air, ultimately leading him to the delusional homeless man named Perry. Williams delivered a superb performance as the mentally unstable Perry, whose life was forever changed by Jack’s fatal mistake; he spends his days searching for the Holy Grail, aided by Jack in hopes of being part of Perry’s salvation and one day his own.

Related: These Are Robin Williams’ Best Performances, Ranked

The fisher king earned Williams a Best Actor Oscar nomination, with critic Roger Ebert stating that “no Williams film can hit harder – or be as comforting in such heartbreaking circumstances – as The Fisher King,and that Perry “gradually simmers to a boil of bristling insecurities, dread and excruciating internalized pain”.


2 Pink

The Irish drama of 2018 Pink centers on titular mother Rosie Davis as she and her husband John Paul try to protect their four children from the harsh reality that the family are now homeless after being evicted by their landlord when their house is sold. For 36 hours, the young couple struggles to keep their little ones from finding out about their heartbreaking situation while searching for a new home.

Directed by Paddy Breathnach, the heartbreaking image shines a light on Ireland’s homelessness crisis, while demonstrating the tremendous efforts parents and mothers make to ensure their children have a positive and safe childhood. Pink had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, with lead actress Sarah Greene receiving widespread acclaim for her commanding performance as a determined mother on an inspiring mission to fight for her loved ones.


1 Lost Angels: Skid Row is my home

Directed by Thomas Q. Napper and narrated by the great Catherine Keener, the 2010 documentary Lost Angels: Skid Row is my home is set in Los Angeles and focuses on eight inspiring people who are committed to creating fulfilling, meaningful lives for themselves within the Skid Row homeless community. Containing one of the largest and most stable homeless populations, Skid Row is known for the thousands of people who call it home, with the illuminating documentary dealing with the diverse and colorful characters who have found a place within the community.

From academics to musicians, Harvard lawyers to former Olympic athletes, this gripping film analyzes the profound effects that mental illness, drugs, poverty and heartbreaking tragedies can have on the mind. The Los Angeles Times called the warm and honest image “A captivating, sometimes heartbreaking look at several former and current residents of downtown LA Skid Row.”

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