Lost In America Interview: Director Rotimi Rainwater On Homelessness And His Own Personal Story

Any form of art is extremely personal. Even in the films that look to enlighten audiences about a particular subject can skew more personal, and I think it’s safe to say that’s exactly the case for Lost in America, the brainchild of Rotimi Rainwater.

I had a chance to speak with Rainwater at an event, where he discussed his own personal story on the subject of homelessness, which is what the film covers.

Nancy Tapia: Here we are at a Night For Youth event to present your documentary, Lost In America. Congratulations on this event tonight.  Rotimi tell me about your documentary, Lost In America.

Rotimi Rainwater: Yes, so the documentary is a six year journey of mine to tell Americans about youth homelessness, to share their stories. So I interviewed 30 youth in 15 cities, more than 50 organizations, politicians, Congress members, senators, all in hopes to really shine a light on what homeless youth go through. And the issue of youth homelessness itself. So we focus on sex trafficking, the rampant rejection of LGBTQ youth, and the failure of the foster care system.

Nancy Tapia: What made you want to even initiate this topic. Because it seems there’s a lack of empathy over homelessness.

Rotimi Rainwater: Well there is. So the way I came about this is when I was 19, so 30 years ago, I was a homeless youth. I had been in the Navy and I got out to take care of my mother who had cancer. And by the time I got out, she had lost her place and was in the hospital already. And I didn’t have any other place to stay. So I ended up sleeping in my car. And so for nine and a half months I would sleep in my car, go see my mother in the morning. I could never tell her what I was going through. So I would say hey, I was partying out last night, can I take a shower? Or oh are you going to eat your eggs? It was like one of those situations. And I ended up having my car towed and I would crash at people’s houses, who I met.

And then I ended up sleeping under a bridge for the last two months. So, you know, I met someone, got into the film industry and I’ve been working in the film industry since I guess 91? Yeah, the first thing I ever did, I was a P.A. On Passenger 57 with Wesley Snipes. And I worked my way up and I started directing in 2000. And I got the ability to make my first feature film in 2013 and it was about homeless youth. It’s called, Sugar. That was with a bunch of actors. We had Corbin Bleu and Nastassja Kinski and a bunch of people like that. And we screened it for Congress. It came out in theaters and we screened it for Congress and not one member of Congress showed up. It was just all of their staffers. And it made me really realize that this was an issue that people just didn’t care about.

So, I decided to make a documentary and that’s why we’re here.

Nancy Tapia: Wow, was not aware of your personal experience. So in the documentary, are you also sharing your story?

Rotimi Rainwater: Yes. I take the cameras back to the bridge that I lived under and went back.

Nancy Tapia: Sorry, you’re making my eyes watery. 

Rotimi Rainwater: It is the first time I’d been back in 30 years. So I actually broke down, started crying, it was very emotional. It was literally where I used to sleep.

Nancy Tapia: Wow, but you know what, look at you now. Your success in life and career. I am sure your mom very proud.

Rotimi Rainwater: Yeah.

Nancy Tapia: And now this event. [Pointing at the event taking place]

Rotimi Rainwater: And now see that little girl spinning around right there. That’s my four-year-old. And in the middle of production, I had my child.

Nancy Tapia: Oh, that’s awesome.

Rotimi Rainwater: Came full circle.

Nancy Tapia: Congratulations! You don’t hear this kind of successful story often. 

Rotimi Rainwater: Thank you.

Nancy Tapia: In the film, there is some politics involved. Can you tell us a little bit of who was involved?

Rotimi Rainwater: So, we had Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Heidi Heitkamp, we had Congresswoman Karen Bass, a bunch of members of Congress in the film. And what was happening at the time is there’s no real protection for homeless youth. There’s a bill called the Runaway Homeless Youth Act, but it hasn’t been reauthorized for years. And in the middle of the film, they were pushing to try to get it reauthorized, to get it passed. And it was defeated because they had protections in there for LGBTQ youth who are homeless. And it basically said that a shelter couldn’t turn them away for sexual preference.

And all the Republicans were like, nope, we’re not going to do that. So it’s still unauthorized. So they’re still funding it, but there’s no real protection, it doesn’t have to be funded. We’ve been pushing to get it funded at a higher level because it’s $160 million dollars a year and at 4 million kids, that’s 8 cents a day to cloth, house, and feed homeless youth. That’s all we’re spending on it, which is ridiculous. I don’t know anybody who can cloth, feed, or house anybody, not even a cat probably for 8 cents a day.

And so we’re pushing to get that at least at $300 million, at least do something. And that’s the purpose of this night. You know, most Americans don’t know this is an issue. We went around and we were asking people at the beginning of the film how many kids they thought were on the street. And people were like a thousand, maybe 100,000 and we interviewed people at HUD, all of these places. And the first week HUD said it was 47,000 youth, and 1-800-RUNAWAY said it was 2.7 million. So, that was the variable. So, basically at the beginning of this film, nobody knew.

And now we are happy to be working with Las Vegas Sands around the release.

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