New documentary series shows the struggles, triumphs of ‘Getting off the Streets’ in Camden

The last two decades of Bill Lowry’s life are hard to fathom.

After losing his first wife to alcoholism, he fell into a deep depression. It cost him his factory job and, not long afterwards, the apartment he rented in Camden County. He became homeless.

It wouldn’t be the last time. About a year ago, the friend he was staying with sold his house, sending Lowry back to the streets. By then, he had lost two more wives. One drowned. The other had a heart attack. He started drinking heavily, hoping to numb the pain.

“The depression never left,” said Lowry. “I kept it bottled up inside.”

And yet, the towering 62 year-old is the bright spot of “Getting Off the Streets,” a new documentary series that shines a spotlight on a “zero tolerance” rehabilitation program for homeless men in Camden, New Jersey, a struggling city some say is on the rise thanks to a tax-credit program that’s lured dozens of new businesses.

The five-part series, slated to air on WHYY-TV this fall, profiles the Homeless Hospitality Network. Launched nearly three decades ago, the program works exclusively with men, who account for the majority of Camden’s chronically homeless population. And almost every participant has a history of addiction to drugs or alcohol.

“We’re looking for men who really have decided that they’re at rock bottom, or at least they’ve determined they’re at rock bottom, and they really want to make a change,” said Sonya Jacobs, the program’s sole case manager.

Over the course of seven months, the program works with 10 to 12 men. They take life skills and money management classes. When they get a job, 80 percent of each paycheck is put into an account so they can save for an apartment of their own.

To stay in the program, they have to remain sober. If they don’t, they’re forced to leave. Participants are also drug tested and expected to go through “intensive” drug and alcohol counseling before graduation.

The program relies on more than a dozen congregations – mostly churches – in Camden County to house and help the men who participate in the program each year. All of them are purposely located outside of Camden City.

“We’re trying to eliminate some of the triggers [that led to them becoming homeless],” said Jacobs.

Sonya Jacobs, program coordinator for the Interfaith Homeless Outreach Council, participates in a panel discussion after the screening of a WNET public television series about the program, in partnership with NJTV. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Getting Off The Streets” follows four men for six months as they make their way through the program. Lowry is the only one who graduated and is still working to change his life for the better. He’s currently part of a transitional housing program run by the Interfaith Homeless Outreach Council, which also operates the Network program.

“It’s always going to be a struggle to a certain degree, but I’m over that hump,” said Lowry after a screening event Wednesday night at Grace Episcopal Church in Haddonfield, one of the congregations in IHOC’s network.

One man gets kicked out of the program after admitting to using drugs. Another man graduates, and then decides to return to the streets. A third man simply walks away. The reason he puts down on a sign-out sheet: “life.”

Filmmaker and journalist Jamila Paksima said she wasn’t trying to paint a rosy picture. She wants viewers to get to know the people we often walk or drive by on the street.

“I hope that people will understand what has happened to people to make them homeless. To understand the depth of the loss and the broken relationships and the trauma that many of these folks have had to endure. Each of these people have had a storybook of nightmares,” said Paksima.

Paksima’s documentary was produced for WNET’s Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America initiative, in partnership with NJTV.

The series will be streaming on Chasing the Dream’s website and on Facebook.

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