Sofa Stories highlights plight of homeless youth with film series premiering Saturday

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

Addressing homelessness is not easy, but one organization is hoping to draw awareness to the subject with a series of filmed monologues portraying what the experience is like for youth. Sofa Stories is premiering its films Saturday at Detroit’s Spread Art space, a donation-based event that doubles as a fundraiser for the organization. The films are also available to view online.

The six films share themes of teens coming from unstable families, including those living out of hotels or running away from abusive parents. One excerpt reads:

Sofa Stories brings awareness to the plight of homeless youth. The film premieres Saturday at Detroit's Spread Art Space.

“Whenever my dad was drunk, ready for a fight, I knew what to do. I stayed quiet, I kept out of the way, I would shut my eyes as tight as possible, and I believed, if I couldn’t see him, he wouldn’t see me… Eventually I realized I had a gift. I had learned how to live and move through this world without drawing any attention to myself, so my superpower came in handy when I left home.”

The films are an extension of the live performances launched by Sofa Stories in 2021, where performers on scattered couches across the city or at events would invite passersby to sit for one-on-one monologues.

“We always wanted that to be a kind of intimate experience, and we did that, but what we realized… is that it really limited our reach…,” said Andrew Morton, the producing artistic collaborator at Short Stories. “But the beauty of film is obviously that it expands our reach to a much wider audience, both in Detroit and further afield.”

The monologues reflect f true events and themes experienced by homeless youth, taken from conversations and surveys with young people at the Detroit Phoenix Center. Morton said they chose to use actors and fictional stories to avoid exploiting or retraumatizing those who have lived or are still living these experiences.

“We wanted to do what we could to use performance in film as a way to amplify these stories and experiences but doing so in a way that felt safe and appropriate,” he said.

Oliva Johnson, who was part of the creative team, said the monologues represent a variety of experiences and hopes the films showcase different ways homelessness can look.

“For me, creating these monologues and showcasing them is just showing the different ways housing insecurity really can affect people, not in just the typical idea of an unhoused person that you’d expect,” they said. 

A study released earlier this year from Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan found 5.6% of Michigan high school youth reported being homeless, an estimated 22,444 teens. In Detroit, an estimated 7,000-14,000 children are homeless, with up to 88% of them not identified by their schools, according to another Poverty Solutions study. 

Jennifer Erb-Downward, one of the authors of the studies, said that finding was critical, because if no one knows a student is experiencing homelessness, they can’t provide them with the needed support. She said Sofa Stories is important in drawing awareness to the problem and finding a solution.

“It provides that very concrete story, it gives the face to the underlying experience, it counters that element of invisibility,” she said. “You can put out statistics but without that story, without the narrative of what the experience is for youth, I think that those statistics and numbers can kind of fall flat. You really need that piece there to help people grapple with how we are going to really address this issue.”

The monologues in Sofa Stories' short films are reflections of true events and themes experienced from homeless youth, taken from conversations and surveys with young people at the Detroit Phoenix Center.

In addition to premiering the films, the event will include a raffle with prizes from area shops and organizations, including Schvitz Health Club, Nora, the Congregation, Floyd, Detroit Opera and Broadway in Detroit.

The film launch has a suggested donation of $20, with funds supporting the performers and young people associated with the project, especially those who lent their stories. It will also support Sofa Stories: OUTside, which will focus on the stories of LGBTQ+ youth who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity. 

In addition to supporting a good cause, Johnson said seeing the Sofa Stories is a substantive art that is more than escapism. 

“(People) should go to see something that is actually relevant, especially for the people of Detroit and the community,” they said. “This is a real, prevalent problem that needs to be showcased.” 

'Sofa Stories'

film launch and fundraiser

7-10 p.m. Saturday at Spread Art, 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit