Journalism Students Address Crucial Topic of Homelessness in New Documentaries

by | Dec 14, 2018 | Features, Outreach & Impact, Student Awards & Achievements

Three documentary films about the plight of homeless people living in Northwest Arkansas, produced by graduate students at the University of Arkansas, debuted this fall.

And if there’s one message all three sets of filmmakers from Fulbright College’s School of Journalism and Strategic Media want viewers to take away from their documentaries, it’s “don’t look away.” 

“Whatever you do, don’t look away,” said Solomon Burchfield, 7Hills Homeless Center’s director of operations, Day Center and Walker Community, during the film compilation’s panel. “Look somebody in the face, even if it makes you ask tough questions about yourself or about your community.” 

Photo by Bryan Pollard: David King, a homeless camper featured in “A Shelter First,” walks to his campsite in South Fayetteville

“A lot of people who are homeless miss out on people treating them with dignity, smiling at them, engaging them in a normal conversation,” he said. “I think if you meet that person on a street corner, that’s the place to begin. It may not be the place to end, but at the very least, look at someone, talk with someone, learn their story like these filmmakers did and let that inform how you show up in your community.”

Now, thanks to the filmmakers Burchfield mentioned and the School of Journalism and Strategic Media, for the first time all three films are available as a compiled set, here online together, followed by a panel discussion with local homeless service providers:



The films include:

  • “Homeless in Boomtown,” produced by Denzel Jenkins and Shane White:
    Fayetteville, AR: This college town nestled in the Ozarks is the American Dream come true, but a growing number of men, women and children are calling the streets home. Vets panhandle in front of Walmart, and homeless folk are camping in the woods, sleeping at the bus depot, and escaping the elements at the local library. This is their story, and the stories of the compassionate volunteers who are reaching out to help. How can we fix this problem? We’re not sure … but we’ll start by not looking away. 
  • “Out of the Woods,” produced by Paulina Sobczak and Andrew Epperson:
    “We believe the story of one person can touch more lives than a thousand statistics could ever show, and we wanted to find a story that’s powerful…” These two filmmakers tell the story of homelessness in Northwest Arkansas by centering on one individual who seems poised to change his life for the better and for good. But can Clinton overcome the odds stacked against him? What will his next step be, and where will he ultimately end up?
  • “A Shelter First,” produced by Bryan Pollard and Taylor Strickland:
    The film depicts the homeless crisis hidden in the woods of South Fayetteville, and the possibility of an innovative solution to provide transitional shelter for the Fayetteville residents in desperate need of shelter and other services. The film would not have been possible without considerable help from David King (pictured), professor Kevin Fitzpatrick, and the many people experiencing homelessness that generously offered their time and insight.

All three tell compelling – and at times uncomfortable – stories of the growing homeless crisis in Northwest Arkansas. 

“The students produced three original films, all very powerful,” said Larry Foley, professor and chair of the School of Journalism and Strategic Media. “Their stories are diverse, yet emotional and impactful.” 

Foley said the students were all in the graduate documentary film classes taught by him and professor Dale Carpenter. 

Additionally, Kevin Fitzpatrick, University Professor and director of the Community and Family Institute, served as an advisor to all of the student filmmakers. 

“It was really helpful to have Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick join the class as an expert on the topic of homelessness. He helped guide them to some really good stories,” Foley said. “We produced a discussion with professionals who are working with people who find themselves homeless, and that revealed some ways to provide help, rather than just focusing on the problems. The films were all aired by AETN in October, giving statewide exposure to this issue.” 

Fitzpatrick has been studying the issue of homelessness for more than 30 years, and started Northwest Arkansas’ Point in Time Census in 2007. 

At last count, the census showed 2,951 homeless people in Washington and Benton Counties, with more than 50 percent of that population in the k-12 student age group.

“Are we doing everything that we possibly can do to accommodate the complexity and diversity of our homeless population?” Fitzpatrick asks in the films. “Every one of them comes with a different story and there’s not [one] approach that will take care of everybody. There’s so many different problems and issues that this population faces that it would be no surprise then that we wouldn’t be able to come up with one single housing solution.” 

But, Fitzpatrick says, there is hope. Local service providers are making a difference for homeless people in the Northwest Arkansas area because they are addressing people’s needs in different ways.

For example, Souls Harbor NWA, a transitional community for men in recovery that provides a pathway to self-sufficiency, has a success rate of 33 percent when the national average ranges from 9 to 11 percent.

“We see tremendous success,” said Charlene Fields, executive director of Souls Harbor NWA, during the film compilation’s panel. “We’ve been able to serve them, offer them life skills. They’ve gained gainful employment – not just employment – but gainful, successful employment. And they’ve found safe, stable housing that they can afford. And so that to me is success.”

The three films featuring Fields and others were also screened at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History this fall, and recently aired on UATV, Cox 214 and

Foley said he hopes that more films from future classes will shed light on additional important community issues, and that his current classes are already working on their next topic.

“I’m very proud of the students’ work,” Foley said. “So much so that I took a ‘themed’ approach to my documentary class again this semester. My current students are producing films around the topic of ‘immigration.’”

For more information about the documentary film classes or students, visit the School of Journalism and Strategic Media online.

For more information about homelessness initiatives at Fulbright College, please visit the Community and Family Institute online.

Andra Parrish Liwag

Director of Communications, J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences 

479-575-4393 //