Top 15 Movies to Watch to Shine a Light on Homelessness

Homeless Awareness Month

Homelessness is a complex issue that’s impacting hundreds of people today in our local Ottawa County community. Nobody expects to become homeless, yet recent studies show that more than 60% of households live paycheck to paycheck—meaning just one emergency or surprise expense can set people down a pathway they never intended or thought possible.

While Good Samaritan continues its work to end homelessness in our community, it’s also vital that each of us grow in our understanding of the complexities that lead to such a traumatic season. These 15 films are one way to help raise awareness about the issues people may face when experiencing homelessness or other housing crises.

1. Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith stars in this moving tale inspired by the true story of Chris Gardner, a San Francisco salesman struggling to build a future for himself and his 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Smith). When his girlfriend Linda (Thandie Newton) walks out, Chris raises Christopher (Jaden Smith) alone. Chris’ determination finally pays off when he lands an unpaid internship in a brutally competitive stockbroker training program, where only one in twenty interns will make the cut. But without a salary, Chris and his son are evicted from their apartment and are forced to sleep on the streets, in homeless shelters, and even behind the locked doors of a metro station bathroom. With self-confidence and the love and trust of his son, Chris Gardner rises above his obstacles to become a Wall Street legend.

Rated PG-13 | Runtime: 117 mins. | Released: December 14, 2006
Directed by Gabriele Muccino | Starring Will Smith, Thandiwe Newton, Jaden Smith

Streaming now on Hulu

2. The Lady in the Van

This movie tells the true story of Alan Bennett’s (Alex Jennings’) strained friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith), an eccentric homeless woman who Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her temporarily to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden house. She stayed there for fifteen years. As the story develops, Bennett learns that Miss Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild (died 1989), a former gifted pupil of pianist Alfred Cortot. She had played Chopin in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.

Rated PG-13 | Runtime: 104 mins. | Released: February 26, 2016
Directed by Nicholas Hytner | Starring Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent

Rent now on YouTubeAppleTVAmazon Prime Video

3. Time Out of Mind

Poignantly addressing heavy topics like homelessness and familial estrangement, the 2014 drama Time Out of Mind features Richard Gere as the hapless George, a man who must contend with being displaced in the streets of New York City, seeking shelter at the Bellevue Hospital, where he develops an unlikely friendship with a kind but unstable companion.

The gripping picture depicts George’s struggles with acknowledging his homelessness and the hurdles he experiences while trying to apply for public benefits; George’s driving force is the possibility that he can reconnect with his estranged daughter, Maggie, in hopes of finding forgiveness for his past misdeeds. Time Out of Mind was lauded by critics for its stirring performances and the insightful depiction of homelessness, with The Village Voice calling the drama “an experiment in empathy, an examination of bureaucracy and street life mundanity, and a movie that many will find a tough sit.”

Rated Unrated | Runtime: 120 mins. | Released: September 18, 2015
Directed by Oren Moverman | Starring Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone

Streaming now on YouTubeTubi

4. The Public

Touting an impressive ensemble cast led by Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, and Christian Slater, the 2018 drama The Public depicts the tension-filled standoff between Cincinnati police and a large group of homeless people who seek refuge in a downtime public library when a brutal cold front hits the city. What initially begins as a nonviolent act of civil disobedience swiftly escalates into a taut showdown between the authorities and the often marginalized homeless seeking shelter from the storm, attracting the attention of the media in the process. The Public offers an earnest look at some of the country’s most difficult issues, tackling the subjects of mental health and homelessness while educating audiences on the topic of social disobedience.

Rated PG-13 | Runtime: 119 mins. | Released: November 15, 2018 
Directed by Emilio Estevez | Starring Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Emilio Estevez

Rent now on YouTubeAppleTVAmazon Prime Video

5. The Soloist

In 2005, the only thing hurting Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez more than his face from a recent bike accident was his pressing need for story ideas. That is when he discovers Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill, homeless street musician who possesses extraordinary talent, even through his half-broken instruments. Inspired by his story, Lopez writes an acclaimed series of articles about Ayers and attempts to do more to help both him and the rest of the underclass of LA have a better life. However, Lopez’s good intentions run headlong in the hard realities of the strength of Ayers’ personal demons and the larger social injustices facing the homeless. Regardless, Lopez and Ayers must find a way to conquer their deepest anxieties and frustrations to hope for a brighter future for both of them.

Rated PG-13 | Runtime: 117 mins. | Released: April 24, 2009
Directed by Joe Wright | Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener

Streaming now on Max

6. The Fisher King

The late and great Robin Williams stars alongside Jeff Bridges in the 1991 fantasy comedy-drama The Fisher King, which focuses on radio shock jock Jack Lucas (Bridges) as he attempts to find redemption for a tragic mistake he made on air, ultimately leading him to the delusional homeless man named Perry. Williams delivers a superb performance as the mentally unstable Perry, whose life was forever altered by Jack’s deadly mistake; he spends his days searching for the Holy Grail, aided by Jack, in hopes of being a part of Perry’s salvation and someday his own.

Rated R | Runtime: 137 mins. | Released: September 27, 1991
Directed by Terry Gilliam | Starring Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Adam Bryant

Rent now on YouTubeAppleTVAmazon Prime Video

7. Same Kind of Different As Me

Ron Hall (Greg Kinnear) lost track of what matters most in life. It took an affair, a confession, a dream, and an unlikely friendship with a homeless man named Denver (Djimon Hounsou) to help him remember. From the outside, Ron Hall’s seemingly charmed life looked pretty perfect: He had a flourishing art business, a beautiful wife, Debbie (Renée Zellweger), two fine teen children, and an amazing fifteen thousand square foot house in Fort Worth, Texas. But appearances can be deceptive.

Rated PG-13 | Runtime: 119 mins. | Released: October 20, 2017
Directed by Michael Carney | Starring Greg Kinnear, Renée Zellweger, Djimon Hounsou

Streaming now on Pluto TV

8. Dark Days

Near New York City’s Penn Station, next to the Amtrak tracks, squatters have lived for years. Marc Singer goes underground to live with them and films this “family.” A dozen or so men and one woman talk about their lives: horrors of childhood, jail time, losing children, being coke-heads. They scavenge; they’ve built themselves sturdy one-room shacks; they have pets, cook, chat, argue, and give each other haircuts. A bucket is their toilet. Leaky overhead pipes are a source of water for showers. They live in virtual darkness. During the filming, Amtrak gives a 30-day eviction notice.

Rated: Unrated | Runtime: 82 mins. | Released: March 9, 2001
Directed by Marc Singer | Starring Marc Singer

Streaming now on Pluto TVTubiPeacock

9. Shelter

Hannah and Tahir fall in love while homeless on the streets of New York. Shelter explores how they got there, and as we learn about their pasts, we realize they need each other to build a future.

Rated: TV-MA | Runtime: 105 mins. | Released: December 11, 2015
Directed by Paul Bettany | Starring Adolfo Mendez-Nouel, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Arnold Hoffman, Jennifer Connelly

Streaming now on RedboxAmazon Prime VideoPeacock

10. A Street Cat Named Bob

The true feel-good story of how James Bowen, a busker and recovering drug addict, has his life transformed when he meets a stray ginger cat. Based on the international best-selling book.

Not Rated | Runtime: 103 mins. | Released: November 18, 2016
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode | Starring Luke Treadaway, Bob the Cat, Ruta Gedmintas

Streaming now on YouTubePluto TVTubi

11. Maid

Single mother Alex turns to housecleaning to make ends meet as she escapes an abusive relationship and overcomes homelessness to create a better life for her daughter, Maddy.

Rated: TV-MA | Runtime: 10 episodes | Released: October 1, 2021
Directed by Molly Smith Metzler | Starring Margaret Qualley, Andie MacDowell, Nick Robinson

Streaming now on Netflix

12. The Cats of Mirikitani

Documentary about red-beret-ed Jimmy Mirikitani, a feisty painter working and living on the street near the World Trade Center when 9/11 devastates the neighborhood. A nearby film editor, Linda Hattendorf, persuades elderly Jimmy to move in with her while seeking a permanent home for him. The young woman delves into the California-born, Japan-raised artist’s unique life, which develops his resilient personality and fuels his two main subjects: cats and internment camps. The editor films Jimmy’s remarkable journey back into his incredible past.

Not Rated | Runtime: 74 mins. | Released: September 7, 2007
Directed by Linda Hattendorf | Starring Bob Bruck, Jess Espinosa, Linda Hattendorf

13. Rosie

The story of a mother trying to protect her family after their landlord sells their rented home and they become homeless.

Rated PG-13 | Runtime: 86 mins. |Released: July 19, 2019
Directed by Paddy Breathnach | Starring Sarah Greene, Molly McCann, Darragh Mckenzie

Streaming now on YouTubeAmazon Prime VideoTubi

14. Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home

Los Angeles’ Skid Row is home to one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. And we found, inside that community, the remarkable and enormously moving stories of Olympic athletes, Harvard attorneys, accomplished musicians, and scholars. We found poverty, drugs, and mental illness, of course—but more importantly, we found life, hope, and incredibly powerful human journeys.

Not Rated | Runtime: 77 mins. | Released: June 2010
Directed by Thomas Napper | Starring Kevin Cohen, Manuel Compito, Danny Harris

Streaming now on Tubi

15. Finding Home: America’s Housing Crisis in Kent County

Finding Home: America’s Housing Crisis in Kent County is a documentary that follows the stories of three different families facing housing insecurity, as well as the three years of work to address the issue.

Not Rated: Runtime: 32 mins. | Release Date: March 2, 2023

Watch now on

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