USICH Blog

11/07/2013 - Life Can be Bitter; Everyone Could Use a Little Sugar… One Man’s Journey from Homelessness to Filmmaker

By Rotimi Rainwater, director

Rotimi Rainwater

I am one of the lucky ones. I say this because I was once homeless, and of all the youth who at one time or another experience homelessness, unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be many success stories. That’s not to say that my life is perfect, by any means. In fact, I still deal with the struggles of everyday life. But I do deal with them under my own roof, and in my own bed. I couldn't say that 20 years ago when, after being released from the Navy to take care of my mother who was fighting cancer, I found myself homeless in Orlando, Florida. Those nine months I spent on the street affected me more than any other nine months in my life. When you're on the streets you quickly learn what is truly important in life.  You quickly learn to not sweat the small stuff. That what’s important is having a place to live, food to eat, and people who love you.  And thank God, I’ve found all of those.

Life on the street isn’t exciting.  It isn’t as sensationalized as many films have made it.  Life on the streets is mundane, and lonely.  No one wants to see you on the streets.  One of the most painful feelings to ever experience is to look at someone who is looking right through you.  To know that to them, you are invisible, and that they would rather you not exist. That’s why most youth on the street huddle together.  All children, no matter what they’ve gone through, need to feel loved. Even if it isn’t from their own family, youth will go to great lengths to find acceptance from those around them. But as I said, life isn’t exciting on the street. My time was spent hiding the fact I was homeless from my mother because she was fighting her own battle against cancer. She didn’t need to worry about me.

So I spent my days lying to her while I was taking care of her. I’d tell her about my non-existent job and how great things were going. I’d lie to her and tell her I was out partying the night before so I could use the shower in her hospital room. But the nights were lonely. Night is when I was alone, sleeping in my car. After it got towed, I slept under the bridge at Lake Eola. When I was a kid I’d go fishing there with my best friend, Mike. But it was more than a decade later and most of my friends had left town, so I slept where I once played.

Since then, I've spent the past 20 years working my way up in the film business until I finally got the opportunity to direct my first feature film: “Sugar.” And it has been an amazing journey telling the story of homeless youth in Venice Beach. I've spent the past two years of my life fighting to get this story made, and now that part of the journey is over and I have time to reflect. They say getting any film made is a miracle, and “Sugar” is no different. Getting Hollywood to care about homeless youth, getting actors to dive into the world to bring the authenticity needed, and finding the right distributor who believes in the cause just as much as they do the film, have all been miracles.

But here I am. And with my story, I hope to inspire others who have spent time on the street to not only follow their dreams, but to not be afraid to dream. And I also hope to give people a realistic view of what it's like on the streets, to humanize the youth who've ended up homeless; because no child on the streets is there by choice. No 13-year old watching Disney with his or her parents wakes up one day and decides to leave home and go eat out of a garbage can. Every child on the streets is a victim, and they need to be seen as such.  Every child on the street has been hurt by the ones who were supposed to love them the most. Almost all of them have been abused either physically or sexually, or persecuted for their religious beliefs or sexual orientation to the point that for them, the streets is all they have left.  They all need our help.   

And that’s what I am trying to do with this film. To be a voice for them, someone who has been there, someone who can show youth you can pick yourself up, and someone to tell the rest of the world to help. So please, help. Get educated on this issue. Volunteer at your local youth shelter. Do something to help end this tragedy. As the film says, "Life can be bitter, everyone could use a little SUGAR."  

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“Sugar” is premiering in Washington DC on November 14th. The release is being co-sponsored by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Network for Youth, and the Sasha Bruce Youthwork. Part of our proceeds will be donated to help 10,000 youth who are homeless.

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