Documentary filmmaker Costa Mantis sheds new light on Sacramento’s homeless
Crest Theatre1013 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
Listening to the hum of the crowd filling the historic Guild Theatre in Oak Park on Wednesday, March 31, you knew, without doubt, that Sacramento’s homeless community has found its voice.
More than 200 local homeless residents and their advocates showed up for the screening of “Outside In,” the latest episode in independent documentary filmmaker Costa Mantis’ series on Sacramento’s homeless, Searching for Safe Ground. Mantis, 59, with the help of local homeless advocacy group Safe Ground, spent more than a year filming and interviewing the denizens of the homeless encampments north of downtown, between the American River and the wrong side of the tracks.
Mantis told the crowd at the Guild that he was sitting in his dentist’s chair in Oxnard, Calif., when his dentist asked what he thought about the tent city in Sacramento. “His wife had seen it on Oprah,” Mantis recalled. “So we got to talking, and that got me thinking of The Grapes of Wrath, you know? And being a documentarian, I have to let the story tell itself, so even though people were telling me I was crazy for doing this, I took my camera and my car and drove up here and went to live with you!”
Although city officials have been known to look the other way, camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours is prohibited in Sacramento. After Oprah put Sacramento’s tent city in the national spotlight last April, the city shut down the homeless encampment, dispersing hundreds of homeless residents.
According to Safe Ground and the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, an estimated 1,200 men, women and children sleep outside every night in Sacramento County.
Mantis followed members of Safe Ground for more than a year, shooting 112 hours of film that he’s editing into a miniseries—one that he hopes to shop to both HBO and the History Channel.
“It will change the way America looks at the homeless,” Mantis told SN&R. “I fully expect [one of them] to pick this up. It’s that compelling.
“In America,” he continued, “Everyone has the right to take care of themselves—but it is socially unacceptable to lose your job and lose your home. What happens is that if you’re at all marginal, you don’t have a savings account, or you have [post-traumatic stress disorder], or mental illness or any number of things that could cause you to lose your home, you’re suddenly invisible.”
Of course, they’re not invisible to everyone. Mantis recalled working from the age of 6 in the family restaurant run by his Greek immigrant father in Reading, Pa.
“It was a 355-seat restaurant, and he would bring in homeless people and sit them down and feed them a meal and sit them down next to the mayor, whoever who was there,” Mantis said, his voice cracking. “So when I see that people don’t treat our fellow humans like that anymore—I just remember my father and think what positive thing can I do to add to the world in a positive way. So this [project] really resonated with me.”
Uptown Studios owner Tina Reynolds’ involvement with Safe Ground got started for personal reasons as well.
“If we don’t take care of all of our community, who’s going to?” Reynolds asked. “It’s our responsibility as citizens and business owners to take care of our neighborhoods, and our neighborhoods [include] people without homes. My personal attitude is that I have abundance—and whether it’s an abundance of time, money or things, I do have enough to share.
“April marks the [one-year anniversary] since Oprah did her big exposé and police broke up tent city, and people now have to move every time they get found by police,” she continued. “All we get is talk and no action; people are still asked to ‘go away,’ but there’s no ‘away’ to go to. And there’s no help.”
Assistant City Manager Cassandra Jennings said the city’s illegal camping ordinance is not to blame for the predicament the homeless find themselves in, and that the city, together with the county, is doing everything “in its power” to “house people every day” in both shelters, motels and what’s known as “rapid rehousing”—assisting residents who are in danger of losing their home, so they don’t risk homelessness in the first place.
But homeless advocates say it is not enough to ease the need out on the streets. Like Mantis’ film clearly showed, there are too many people for the shelters to house, and those who are left out have no option but to stay outdoors, which is illegal in Sacramento.
However, this Catch-22 may not last, now that Sacramento’s homeless community has found its voice. Safe Ground has two pending suits against the city: one, for confiscating and destroying homeless residents’ property (it just settled a similar suit with the county, yielding homeless residents $500,000, which is expected to be paid out next week); and the second, challenging the city’s anti-camping ordinance.