In New York, which feels increasingly like a city with an ever-more brutal divide between the haves and the have-nots, homelessness is rising. In January of 2014, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 67,810 homeless people in the city (based on a “point-in-time” survey taken all over the country on a single night in January); there had been 64,060 the year before—and that’s nearly 10,000 more than were recorded in 2010.
I grew up in New York in the 1970s, and while it’s fair to say that the urban landscape looks a lot better than it did back then, some things feel like they’re slipping backwards.
I live in London these days, but I get back to my hometown pretty regularly, and when I travel on the subway, or walk the streets, I’m reminded of my childhood—not by Teddy Roosevelt astride his steed in front of the American Museum of Natural History, but by the number of people I see tucked into doorways with sleeping bags, or settled in for the night on a midnight train.
But homelessness isn’t always obvious, as film-maker Thomas Wirthensohn discovered. Wirthensohn is a photographer and film-maker who was born in Austria but has made his home in the city for the past five years, and now his first film, Homme Less, won the Metropolis Competition Jury Prize at this year’s hugely successful DOC NYC festival in November, and rightly so: it’s a thoughtful, intriguing work, its vision of a life in New York boosted by an elegant, jazzy score from Kyle Eastwood (son of Clint, you will recall). Wirthensohn started in the working world not behind the lens, however, but in front of it, as a male model, which is where he first met Mark Reay, the subject of Homme Less.
They first encountered each other in Vienna a couple of decades ago; they were never real friends but “we kept in touch over the years, and we ran into each other in the most random places; after not seeing him for 10 years, suddenly there he was one day at my gym in Vienna. I knew he was living in New York at the time I moved here, so we met for a drink, and that’s when he told me his story. I was shocked—I was like, you gotta be kidding. We’d had a few drinks, we were both a little drunk. I ran out of questions to ask, I asked where he lived, and he started mumbling, and then he told me the story. I just couldn’t believe it, but when I saw he was serious… Well. I was looking to make a documentary, I wanted to change my career, and I knew right away this was it. He thought about it for a week or so, and then he said yes.”
Mark Reay, his subject, looks, as the saying goes, like a million dollars. He too, however, has given up modeling as he’s headed into silver-fox territory, looks-wise; the film finds him working as a photographer in the fashion industry, backstage at New York’s Fashion Week—and you can see his work on his website, Backstage/Slideshow.
Watching him work, you can see his charm, his chutzpah, as he snaps the models who come and go to Fashion Week, taking his chance on street-corners, and producing some terrific work, too.
But the story that shocked Wirthensohn, the story the film traces, is where he’s living: on the roof of an old friend’s apartment building in Chelsea. He keeps a nest—a secret he has to keep from the other residents in the building, sneaking up the stairs— which looks cozy until you begin to think of the rain, the cold, and see things like the gallon jug that he keeps to pee in during the night. He belongs to a gym, he can afford to pay for that: he can shower, he can keep his belongings in a series of lockers there.
“Follow your bliss—but be prepared to live your nightmare,” Reay says to the camera, and his story has the sense of how fragile a 21st-century existence can be.
Years ago he was renting a room inside a building in Chelsea; he was forced out when the building was sold. New York life, Manhattan life, is fabulously, extravagantly expensive these days: it’s easy to just fall off the edge.
Reay’s secret is out now, of course. The success of Homme Less—which has also won “Best Documentary” in this year’s film festival in Kitzbühel, in Austria, and was an official selection at the Hof Film Festival in Berlin—means that the word is out.
I wonder how hard that is for Mark. Austria and Germany, he tells me, were really enjoyable experiences; he was completely anonymous there, no one knew him. “But bringing it to New York was a bit nerve-wracking,” he admits. “I compare it to having a psychiatrist tell you that he’s going to make a film about everything you’ve been saying to him for the past two or three years!
So New York was…” he hesitates a little. “Somewhat uncomfortable, because everyone gets to know me quite—well.” But he is sanguine, thank to what Wirthensohn has achieved. “The film’s so good. And I’m not ashamed, either,” he says.
He made, he knows “some bad decisions” in his life; “but I always knew Thomas was a good guy. He could have made me look like a complete ass, but that wasn’t his intention. I never asked him that; I just knew.”
This is not homelessness as we usually imagine it: but the cut-throat economy of our day and age means acknowledging how hard it is to get a foot in the door. Mark hasn’t been on the roof since July; he spent the summer in Europe with a friend, and since his return has been spending a lot of time with his family in New Jersey, a couple of hours out of the city.
“It makes me realize how lucky I was to have a base in Manhattan,” he says. There’s a chance of an apartment share; and he hopes too that the film might make his work that much more visible. He’s shot for Diane von Furstenberg and Alexander Wang in the past, but he knows “it’s a cut-throat business”. His equanimity is striking.
I watched Homme Less back-to-back with The Homestretch, another new documentary which looks at the lives of three homeless teenagers in Chicago who brave the cold, go to school, try to find their feet in adulthood: three teenagers out of the 19,000 homeless in Chicago alone.
Mark Reay knows his predicament is very different from theirs. “I don’t consider myself homeless,” he says. “People can see a huge difference between people on the streets, people who are addicted to drugs, or mentally unbalanced, and me.”
On the roof, he says, “I was always safe. I knew once I was there, my physical safely was never in doubt.” He knows he was lucky that way; but also that appearances can be deceptive.
“I always felt it was funny, because I have a physical look that makes people feel I am successful. I might walk by people and have $30 to my name—but I look like I could have $30 million.” Of the people we are more likely to think of as homeless, he says, “it’s ironic how we are in both similar situations; I contend with the same issues they do. I’m walking in their shoes.”
Wirthensohn is talking to distributors now; there should be more festivals next year. “I never expected it to go so fast,” he says. You could argue that he’s living the American dream—but he knows that his film shows the flip side of that dream. In it there’s a shot of the view from Mark’s roof—midtown New York stretched out in the evening, the Empire State Building rising like a beacon.
“It is an image of the American dream,” Wirthensohn says. “And you know Mark will be there, sleeping under a tarpaulin. He walks up the stairs of the building every night, it’s like following your dream—you end up on the roof deck, but the dream is unreachable to you, and there’s nowhere else to go anymore.”