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Students step into the homeless' shoes

More than 40 people packed the community room in the Winter Park library to watch Rollins students' documentaries on homelessness on Jan. 27. More than 4,000 children were homeless in the Orlando area in 2009.

More than 40 people packed the community room in the Winter Park library to watch Rollins students' documentaries on homelessness on Jan. 27. More than 4,000 children were homeless in the Orlando area in 2009.

Brittni Larson

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Thousands of bottle caps littered nearly every inch of the ground at the entrance of the homeless encampment, a subtle warning to intruders. On a piece of ripped cardboard was a scrawled message: Keep out.

"At first I was nervous," said Nikki Salazar, a Rollins College student and filmmaker.

Salazar and her partner on the project, Katie Hubbell, had to sign a liability waiver before entering the camp with a local homeless assistance organization, HOPE Team, since the camp can be a dangerous place.

The two students spent their fall semester making the documentary about the HOPE Team and their work with the homeless for a social justice documentary class.

More than 40 people filled a community room in the Winter Park library on Jan. 27 to watch the three documentaries made by students in the class.

Once inside the camp, Salazar, Hubbell and Nancy Martinez, a HOPE team leader, discovered a group of tents in the woods. Bright blue plastic tarps, protectors from rain and sun, popped against the dull greens of the scrawny Florida forest.

Stacks of bottles of water, rescued chairs, and a makeshift kitchen and bathroom rounded out the improvised home. While the surroundings were unfamiliar — a far cry from the beautiful Rollins campus — the faces were welcoming.

"Some were standoffish, but a lot of the people were interested in saying their piece; it seemed like they were waiting for an opportunity to tell their story," Salazar said.

One story that touched Salazar the most was told by a woman named Candy. They spent more than an hour talking to her, and Salazar and Hubbell were nearly brought to tears when Candy spoke of what Martinez and the rest of the HOPE Team meant to her. In the documentary Candy and Martinez hug, while Candy wipes tears from her face. Salazar said meeting Candy was a learning experience.

"She was so thankful and honest about how she ended up in this situation," Salazar said.

While talking to the people was an experience Salazar valued, it was also the most difficult part of making the documentary, she said.

"The hardest part was talking to them and looking into their eyes and listening to how they spoke, and how they felt there was no way out, and accepted that that's the way their life was going to be."

For many in Central Florida, this life is a reality. The Homeless Services Network of Central Florida estimated that 9,887 people were homeless at one time in Central Florida in 2009. And the homeless population doesn't just include men — HSN estimated that from January to May 2009, 4,206 homeless children had attended schools in the region. This year's count was done on Jan. 27 and results will be released later in the year.

Larry Mclaren, a man conquering the statistics, spoke at the library meeting about his experience being homeless and the importance of documentaries like this.

"I wish America could see this video because it's a problem and it's increasing," Mclaren said.

Susan Salinger, the students' professor, hopes to inspire the students to keep telling stories of injustice so that they create a public discourse and spark change. These stories of homelessness were a start she said she's proud of.

"We were able to put a face on one of the biggest social issues we have," she said.

"I hope people learn from it and it interests them to the point that they will go out and make a difference," said Salazar. "I'll be happy if it just hits one person."