By Steven Jackson
Students braved the rain Tuesday afternoon for a Wilson Theater screening of “Sixteen Forty-Nine,” a documentary about teen homelessness in Beloit and Janesville. Director R.E. Burgos was available for discussion following the film.
The documentary presents a startling look at the problem of teen homelessness in Rock County. It draws from national statistics, interviews with education and community figures, and the personal stories of three Rock County high school students who have struggled through homelessness and instability. The film gets its title from the 16 hours and 49 minutes that homeless teens spend with nowhere to go between the end of one school day and beginning of the next.
After the film, director R.E. Burgos fielded questions. Burgos got the idea for the film—his first documentary—in 2010 when Beloit Memorial High School counselor Robin Stuht told him about the issue in Rock County. “She wanted to give these kids a voice, and she let me run with it for the next nine months,” Burgos said.
In those nine months, Burgos collected information and shot interviews with school counselors, administrators, community organizers—and homeless teens. Kayla Brown, Corey Winter, and Brandon Lucian are featured in the film. They represent only a sliver of teenagers without homes in this country. Forty percent of our nation’s homeless are 17 years or younger, the film reports.
“My goal was not to make this a political or religious issue, but to ask ‘How do we love kids? How can we help?’ ” Burgos said.
So far, that goal is being realized and Burgos’ question answered. Project 16:49 is a task force that was formed to address teen homelessness. The group is currently raising funds to build a shelter for homeless and unaccompanied Rock County teens. Capacity will start at about eight people, but should grow from there, Burgos said.
Of the teens in the film, Kayla is on track to graduate from Beloit Memorial High School this year. Corey is also set to graduate and is living with a family in the community. Brandon graduated and is employed with a company in Beloit.
Those interested in addressing homelessness in Rock County can visit Project 16:49’s official website at www.project1649.org.