by Carolyn Bick
Tomasz Biernacki is a West Seattle photographer, documentarian, and former architectural graphic designer. His first film, Trickle Down Town, follows several different people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness in the Seattle area. The film first premiered in October, and has since been shown around the Seattle area. The Meaningful Movies Project will screen Trickle Down Town at Centilia Cultural Center, 1660 S. Roberto Maestas Festival Street Jan. 8 at 7 p.m.
Biernacki spoke by phone with the Emerald from Camp Second Chance, where he was building tiny homes.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you come to decide to do this documentary?
I worked in an unrelated field. I was an architectural illustrator. … I was in the graphic arts industry for about 20 years, and I started doing documentary, because I worked on a few small, little hobby projects here and there, with mostly just outdoor adventure-type things for YouTube. But I wanted to do a film on, a kind of a social justice film for a while, and one place where I live, in West Seattle, is along not far from Harbor Avenue, which is basically the Alki area, and there’s a really nice walk there, and my wife and I go on walks there all the time. And during that time, there were a lot of RVs parked along that route, and so I’ve always kind of wondered, “What’s going on here? Who are these people? Why are there all these RVs, people living in RVs?” And I would always tell my wife, “There’s a story here. I think there’s a story to be told.” But the hard thing was I didn’t know how to introduce myself. You know, it’s hard to say hello.
One day, a lady posted on the West Seattle Connection, which is a Facebook page. She lived in one of those RVs, and she posted a really angry message saying that somebody shot her windows out overnight, while she was sleeping. So, I figured, here’s somebody, I see her name, and I can contact her. I reached out to her, and she was willing to talk to me a little bit, but, more importantly, she started introducing me to all the people who lived in those RVs. So, over a few month period, I started getting to know people out there. Now and then, I started asking people, “Could I interview you?” And one thing led to another, and you meet one person who introduces you to more people.
I spent almost eight months working on this film full-time, going anywhere from people who live in RVs to hanging out with people in the streets. Along the way, I met Casey, whom you meet in the film. She started taking me into the woods, and the people who live there.
I came across Camp Second Chance, where I met Mark Worden and some of the solutions, and, organically, it was kind of an organic process where I ended up meeting people along the way who would tell me their story. The film kind of represents a broad overview of basically every story. I interviewed many, many more homeless people for the film, but I only had time for a few stories. But they represent a cross-section of the people I talked to.
Do you yourself have any experience personally with homelessness?
I don’t. I’m an immigrant. I came to the United States as a 10-year-old kid from Poland. My parents brought me here when they immigrated. I was actually an illegal alien for a while. My father worked in New York City removing asbestos. My mother cleaned the houses of very rich people. So, we were basically — the first many, many, many years of my life in America living at or below poverty. I don’t think we were ever at a point where we would have been homeless, but, as an adult, when I look back at it, I could definitely see that my parents were just living paycheck-to-paycheck.
I can see that it could easily have been that transition. It just never happened to us, and certainly not that my parents ever talked about. But I can definitely see that we were definitely living on the edge in that world.
I worked really hard, and I built a business, and I worked for 20 years in the architectural illustration industry, and I’m at a position right now in my life — I’m 41, and I have the ability to a lot more free time, and I wanted to do something that would have a lot more of an impact on our society than just going to work every day.
Was there anything that happened when filming the documentary you didn’t expect? Did you learn anything new, or did your perspective on the issue change at all?
Everything. Every single thing. Every single thing was a giant surprise to me. I was one of the guys who didn’t really pay attention to the homeless issues at all. Honestly, I didn’t even really know there was one, living in well-to-do West Seattle. The only sign I ever saw of it was the RVs, and even then, you make a lot of assumptions. When you don’t know what’s happening, you continue to just make assumptions. It’s a natural process.
You name any statistic about homelessness, and all of it was a surprise to me. And the people that I met, everybody who is experiencing homelessness is, you know, they are just like us. They are just people who have the same passion and energy for their lives as you and I have for ours. Some got into trouble one way or the other, or need help, but, at the end of the day, we’re all human beings. I think that was the message that I was trying to send in the film.
I didn’t want the film to be a political thing, it was a human statement. It was going to be about the people and realizing that the people who are around you who are homeless are no different than you and I. They are our neighbors, our friends, our family members. And everybody along the way that I bumped into has said that.
I think it really does touch many people. I know two people right now, myself, good family, friends, their family members are currently homeless, or on the edge of it. It’s something that I think affects every person one way or the other. They just don’t notice it, I guess.
I spend all my time working at Camp Second Chance, building tiny homes. You’re talking to me right now, and I’m at Camp Second Chance. Forty percent of the people here, they work full-time. They have jobs in carpentry, there’s a guy who works at the bike shop. The other 30 percent are disabled. So, they are not necessarily young or old, they are just disabled, so they physically can’t work. It might be a physical disability, where a guy fell off a roof. Or it’s heart conditions, or massive anxiety issues. But there’s also a lot of, you know, mental issues, too, people can’t just function really well in society, and in this crazy, everything’s-got-to-be-at-100-percent society, it’s hard for a lot of people to get by. And then the other 30 percent is the most shocking part. It’s seniors. People who are retired, they live on pensions, they don’t have enough money. They are poor living. They need a place to stay. I just talked to a gentleman … just a few minutes ago. I said, “Hey, what’s your plan?” And he said, “I’ve got no plan. I’m 74 years old. I’m just waiting ‘til the Lord takes me.”
A lot of people I spoke with, everyone’s saying the same thing: we need affordable housing. I think 90 percent of this problem could be fixed, if we just had affordable housing access for people. It’s a complicated problem.
What frustrates you most about Seattle’s homelessness crisis?
Meetings about more meetings, so we can get the studies so we can have more meetings. How about that? It’s too much talking, too many meetings, and not enough action. I, Mark, and a whole bunch of volunteers, we come here every Saturday, and we build homes. We already have plans for 18 more, and I’m already setting up the structure to build 100 more a year after that.
It’s action, at the end of the day, it’s action. The other day, the city was talking about putting in a shower truck, a $270,000 truck that would allow people to take showers. I was talking to the lady that was in charge of that project, and I was like, “I can build you one for $2,000! I can build a tiny house, put three different showers in it, put two different doors so people can come in and out easily, and I can have this thing don in a month. So, what are you doing spending $270,000?”
I think a lot of it is just — they’re making it more complicated than it needs to be, and too many issues get involved, and the whole thing comes to a grinding halt, and I can just see how nothing gets done. But, from the grassroots point of view, guys like me, we don’t have people telling us what to do. We don’t answer to the city. We at Second Chance are using a standardized model that we know, and we can just knock ‘em out.
I interviewed a lot of different politicians, and I saw a lot of people basically deer with headlights in their eyes? Not really knowing what to do. I’m not going to name who that was. There are politicians who are passionate about the issue, and others who don’t know what’s going on. And if they do, they definitely aren’t doing the right thing to help the problem. I am trying to stay out of politics on this whole thing. That’s not my space, that’s not my fight. I’m not running for political office, so I have no interest in any of that stuff. I just want to help people get housed.
I think [the politicians] are just afraid to lose their jobs. There are certain people in the city who are pushing against what we’re doing, and the politicians are too afraid of the — you know, the people who fought the head tax? That was going to be money directed for housing. And instead of fighting for it, they just folded. And that’s the kind of stuff that I think — we need people with some guts to stand up to Amazon, stand up to these companies, and say, “Hey, you guys partially caused this problem, you have to partially be responsible for fixing it.”
What are your future plans, with regards to documenting Seattle’s homelessness issue?
Nothing solid. The only thing that really, really intrigues me that I am kind of starting to wrap my mind around, it’s probably going to happen — it’s something to do with the [homeless] women issue. But I just need to talk to some more people who have been in that position to better understand what I am trying to say, because, again, I’m a guy, and I’m a white guy. And I’m a wealthy, white guy. I’m the last person to be telling their story, so I just need to figure out what is that story? What is the general, key point that can be extracted out of that, and how to tell that story in a compelling way, where people are not just talking about being assaulted. There has to be a certain level of entertainment along with education, and there is a balance there. It’s a really, really rough subject to figure out how to tell that story, without just making everybody depressed. So, that’s the only thing that’s really floating out there.
Featured Image: A screen shot from the trailer for Trickle Down Town.