Michael Leoni was once evicted from his apartment in New York City and had a chance to get back on his feet. He learned though about what it might be like to have to live on the streets by starting to talk to some kids who actually were homeless, and was extremely moved by what he learned. He now has a non-profit organization called Spare Some Change that helps get homeless kids off the streets. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many homeless kids on the streets, and whether or not some of those signs they hold up are a scam, read this interview. It will open your eyes wide to a much deeper issue that causes youth homelessness
Love and Water- Talk about how you started Spare Some Change The Movement.
Michael Leoni- It started 10 years ago. I was going through a rough time in New York City right after 911 and got evicted from my apartment. I realized that there was a path I could have gone down during that time. I didn’t have any money and I was pretty desperate, and I got to know some people even more desperate than me. As an artist I wanted to pick up the pieces and rebuild my life. So I started interviewing some kids who were on the streets, and I became so close to them. I learned that most of them had been shut out of their families when they were as young as nine, and had been living on the street since then. One thing I found out was that NONE of them wanted to be on the streets; they just didn’t know an alternative. I started writing a play about them, called “The Playground.” I put it up in New York and LA, and now it’s become a feature film. But as I was sitting around waiting for the funding for the film I kept thinking that the message still wasn’t getting out about what these kids are going through. So I decided to do a Public Service Announcement for my movement, called Spare some Change. We’ve gotten a bunch of kids off the street as a result.
L&W- How have you gotten them off the street?
ML- While interviewing kids for the movement we got really close to them. It was a matter of bonding with them in order to get them to talk about what really happened to get them here. Because it’s not their choice to be on the street- it’s like their mom dropped them off at a rest stop when they were nine years old and they had no choice. And it’s hard to get them to talk about that because it’s hard stuff, and it requires them to go so deep. But we just connected with them and got these unbelievable stories. This one kid, when we got done filming, did heroin for the first time and called us the next day because he wanted to kill himself. So we had no choice but to go and get him. He was a mess. We were able to get him into a rehab in Texas, which was really fortunate. And we started doing that for other kids who were brave enought to reach out to us. We really try to inspire each kid to do more. We believe they can move into a better situation if they’re motivated to. It’s not as easy as many people think for them.
L&W- Living in New York, I see a lot of kids on the street. I, along with a lot of people I know, will often wonder if it’s a scam, when I see kids with signs on the street. But now that I’m more familiar with your organization my perspective has really shifted.
ML- One of the things in our movie that disturbs a lot of people when they see it is this 16 year old kid with a sign that says “kick me for a dollar.” And he’s laughing and crowds of people are laughing and kicking him in the ass, like it’s a great show. And by the end he’s limping in pain, and what it shows is that’s how he makes his money. It’s either that or prostituting. And it’s not a joke. Many people think they can get jobs because they’re young and able, but actually they can’t get jobs because they don’t have official forms of ID or their birth certificates. And they usually can’t go home to their parents who had been abusing them. So it’s harder than it looks.
L&W- And it’s all over the country?
ML- All over the world. But I’m focusing on America because there are so many things we can do right in this country.
L&W- When can we see Spare Some Change The Movie?
ML- It’s in post production right now. And we keep adding things because we meet new kids everyday and get so much good footage. I definitely want people to understand that it’s not their choice to be on the street, and it takes a while for them to talk about that.
L&W- Do you have any fundraisers coming up?
ML- We’ll be having one every month, and encouraging other people and groups to do the same. People can have a blanket drive, a food drive, a clothing drive, all of which are really important for us to pass on to the kids. Most importantly though we work on connecting with the kids and inspiring them to do more. Two of the kids we met while shooting the movie ended up working with our crew, and now that’s what they want to do with their lives, and they didn’t know that before.
L&W- So if anyone wants to do a clothing drive, they can contact you?
ML- Absolutely. And all donations are tax-deductible and any monetary donations go to buying food for the kids and getting them what they need, like clothes and blankets. One kid asked if we could get her a notebook so she could start writing her book. So any kind of donation is unbelievably helpful.
L&W- Is there anything else you want people to know?
ML- One thing I want to make clear is that the drugs are a serious problem. These kids are not druggies- they’re just always in the middle of serious drama, like dealing with the police and fights and just generally living on the streets, and the drugs are available to them, so they use them as an escape. One kid did crystal meth so she wouldn’t have to eat for two days. Plus, they have nothing to do all day long except figuring where to go to the bathroom, how to deal with whatever disease they’ve contracted, how to deal with rotting teeth. It’s really a full time job, day to day. But there’s hope, and it starts with making a human connection and helping them realize that they can move past this lifestyle. They can do what they never knew they could do. It starts with not ignoring them. It starts with saying hello, and asking about how their day is going. That can make a huge difference.
L&W- Thank you so much. This has been so enlightening, in so many ways.
ML- Thank you.
Visit Spare Some Change The Movement here: http://www.sparesomechangethemovement.com/
Join their Facebook Fan Page here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Spare-Some-Change/88462783086?v=info&ref=sgm#/pages/Spare-Some-Change/88462783086?v=wall&ref=sgm
Follow them on Twitter here: @SSCtheMovement