Once Homeless, Now Hopeful: The Unforgettable True Story Behind Gimme Shelter
Normally, when someone is described as “homeless,” the image that immediately springs to mind is of the drunken, greasy-haired guy mumbling to himself in an alley. But if award-winning writer/director Ronald Krauss has anything to say about it, that perception is about to change dramatically with his new film Gimme Shelter.
Not surprisingly, the new faces of the homeless population look a whole lot more like you and me, a harrowing reality that Krauss has seen firsthand while regularly volunteering at food banks and shelters.
“We’ve faced the worst economic times in history. Families are broken. Dreams are crushed. And so many people have been living paycheck to paycheck and found themselves homeless,” Ronald shares. “This is a new face of homelessness in America. So many people have worked so hard, and their lives have fallen apart—not always because of what they’ve done wrong but because of other people, greed, all these uncontrollable factors.”
A filmmaker who naturally gravitates toward stories that center around compassion and shine a very personal light on timely social issues (Krauss’ last project, Amexica, focused on human trafficking), Krauss never intended to make a movie about the homeless. When visiting his brother in New Jersey one Christmas, however, he stumbled upon unlikely inspiration in a shelter about a mile from his brother’s home.
Merely hoping to lend a hand wherever it was needed, Krauss never expected to find the inspiration for his next movie when he knocked on the door. Or to meet a woman as selfless and courageous as Kathy DiFiore, the founder of Several Sources Shelters, but that’s exactly what happened.
A Mother to the Motherless
For the past 33 years, DiFiore has opened her home and become a mother figure to frightened, pregnant young women who have nowhere else to turn. Once homeless herself after leaving an abusive marriage, Kathy fought her way back, got a job, bought her very first home and converted it into a refuge for women without hope, opportunity or the most basic of human needs, a warm bed.
A tireless advocate for change, she didn’t even buckle when the state tried to shut down her efforts (apparently, they frowned upon the idea of using your personal residence to help the needy). Instead, the feisty DiFiore turned to Mother Teresa, who came by Kathy’s side and paved the way for legislative change in New Jersey.
“Kathy just selflessly helps people and had been doing so for three-plus decades without anyone ever documenting it,” Ronald says. “She’s avoided publicity at all costs to protect the people and the shelters from being invaded by people who’d want to exploit her.”
After being so moved by the sight of all those mothers and babies being cared for, Krauss began talking to DiFiore about the importance of having a record of the good work that was being done. It would serve as an important part of her legacy that would help future generations understand what she was doing and continue her life’s work. And with Kathy’s eventual blessing, Ronald traveled back and forth to New Jersey to capture what was happening. Naturally, DiFiore insisted that he use her camera.
Moviemaking With a Purpose
As the tapes began piling up on Kathy’s desk, another unexpected event touched Krauss’s heart so deeply that he simply couldn’t shake it. One particularly cold January evening, it was about 15 degrees in New Jersey. And when Krauss showed up for filming, there was a young woman standing in front of the shelter without a jacket on. Immediately asking her what she was doing out there in such frigid conditions, he insisted she head inside.
“I didn’t know that she didn’t live there, and she didn’t know that I didn’t work there,” Ronald remembers. “When Kathy saw me, she sort of read me the Riot Act about following the rules about letting people into the shelter. But I said ‘This poor girl doesn’t have a place to stay tonight. Don’t you have a bed?’ So they checked, and Kathy came back to me and said ‘We have one bed, why don’t you tell her?’”
When Ronald relayed the good news to the young woman, she hugged him so tight in utter appreciation. “She sent a jolt straight to my heart,” Ronald says. “It touched me so deeply, and I couldn’t help wondering if there were others like her who just need help.”
Given his background in making movies, Krauss immediately thought that a feature film, not a documentary, would be the best way to tell this story. Hoping that it could maybe inspire acts of kindness, and perhaps, even nudge people toward opening shelters, too, he approached Kathy with his idea. True to form, she said “absolutely not, especially if it was about her.”
But as time wore on, a trust was built, and Kathy gave Ronald her blessing to write the story—as long as it featured the girls and the shelters. When committing to the effort, Krauss didn’t rely on just interviews to get the message across. He actually moved into the shelter for a year and wrote the screenplay there.
“It was a journey I’ll never forget, one they trusted me with,” Ronald shares. “When Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers, the High School Musical franchise) was cast, she also ended up living there for three weeks. Many of the actual girls ended up acting with Vanessa in the movie, and there were also 23 babies from the shelter in the production as well.”
Inspired by these real-life stories of tragedy turning to triumph, it was an experience that Krauss won’t soon forget.
“These girls have had such a hard life. They didn’t choose that life, they were often born into it,” Ronald says. “People get frustrated with so many little things these days, and these girls have been through everything. But they showed me that no matter how bad you think your life is, how much you think you’re not heading in the right direction, there is hope. No matter who you are, if you never give up on your dreams, on hope, you can survive and make it in life. These girls are living proof.”
Opening nationwide on January 24, Gimme Shelter, starring Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser and James Earl Jones, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language—all concerning teens. For more information on the film, please visit www.gimmeshelterthemovie.com.
About the Writer
Christa A. Banister is a highly caffeinated novelist, feature writer and film critic who watches bad movies so you don’t have to. When she’s not debating the merits of what’s showing in a theater near you, the Dallas-based writer is working on her third novel, traveling, cooking, cheering on her beloved Packers and blogging about pop culture and everything else at www.christabanister.com.