In this powerful documentary, director Michael Leoni headed to the streets of Los Angeles to see what it’s like to be a homeless kid. Initially he was planning on shooting a PSA, but he got sucked in and ended up becoming much more than a filmmaker. American Street Kid is about his relationship with a group of young people who came to rely on him and who he was bound and determined to save. It’s both an advocacy piece for building an infrastructure to help young people escaping abusive homes and a cautionary tale about documentarians who get too close to their subjects. And it’s equal parts heart-breaking and heart-warming.

Leoni was drawn to helping kids on the street after directing a play about teen homelessness. But when he went out to shoot his PSA, and slowly gained the trust of a tight little group of teens, he was drawn into their stories and couldn’t just back away when he knew they were in danger. Girls were beaten and raped. They were were all doing drugs to numb themselves to the experience and doing whatever they needed to do not to go hungry. The youngest of them were 15-years-old. All had come from abusive pasts and many had aged out of foster care with nowhere to go. And before he knew it, he was part of their little tribe. They’d call him when there was trouble. He took them into his home and called various social services to try and get them off the streets, but met with bureaucracy and insane wait times. The kids trusted him and he did all he could, and sometimes it wasn’t enough. I cannot imagine what was going on in his head.

The film focuses on several of the group. What makes the film work is that they each have their distinct personalities, and names, and quirks, and histories. They’re not just statistics or stereotypes. The common denominator is that they’re all looking for connection. One HIV positive girl fools her boyfriend into thinking she’s pregnant. Another girl is pregnant and believes she will be able to give her baby the life she was denied. Another finds success as a singer. One young man struggles but finally with Leoni’s help and encouragement gets his certification to be a movement therapist. And some of them just disappear.

The film is as much about Leoni as it is about the kids. It’s his evolution from documentarian to activist. Though he was only able to help a handful of them, the experience pushed him to start a non-profit and get involved in changing the system. As the film tells you, there are 1.8 million kids on the streets today. And 13 of them die every single day. It’s shameful that as a society we’re letting this happen. I hope lots of people see this documentary and work to make a safe place for these young people to feel at home. You might not look at those street kids in your town the same way next time you see them.

If you’re moved to get involved yourself after watching the film, head over to their Impact Campaign page for ways you too can make a difference and/or donate to some of the non-profits that help homeless youth.

Streaming on-demand: Apple iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, Spectrum, Fandango NOW, Cox, Charter cable etc.

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