Interview with Homeless Interviews creator: David Leach
By: Emmy Andrata
March 2, 2018
Homeless Interviews was a docu-series of interviews with homeless people from Los Angeles. It was created and filmed by David Leach over 2010-2012 with the help of his friend Brandon Wilson. In total 9 episodes were made then uploaded online to Youtube and Vimeo. Homeless interviews was produced under the name “Project “H.i.” “.
What made you decide to create “H.i.” (Homeless interviews)?
My “why” behind Homeless Interviews was straightforward. I believed at that time, that by telling their stories, that I was documenting a part of history that would never be captured on film. Our country was also exiting the 2007 financial crisis and our housing situation in America was in shambles. I wanted to create a documentary series that would tell the stories of homeless people.
Didn’t you achieve what you set out to do?
No. Not by a long shot.
Care to elaborate?
Sure. One, I never planned on being the “interviewer” in Homeless Interviews because I knew that “I” would be the limiting factor on a broader viewership adoption. It was not about me being a “host”. However… initially someone had to be the guy to ask the homeless folks the questions. Two, in order to actually help any of the individuals I needed an actual support infrastructure. It was just myself and this young kid Brendan Wilson at the time. I was on a very limited budget. For help I reached out to “resources” available at the time, homeless shelters, non-profits, religious organizations… but it was unanimous that the organizations were either overwhelmed or simply didn’t want to assist. In today’s world with more widely available high speed internet on mobile devices, Youtube and Vimeo, and the overall popularity of videos online, this would have probably been regarded more seriously. However this was a while ago…I understood my position at the time, formalized a plan, and attempted the path I ended up taking. It just didn’t work out.
You had mentioned something about (Discovery’s channel’s) Mike Rowe and Homeless Interviews?
Yes. I thought I could sell the concept and “H.i.” would get picked up by a major network. I planned on asking Mike Rowe to be the show host. Everybody loves Mike Rowe. The only dilemma with “Dirty Jobs” (the show was cancelled in 2012) was that (Mike Rowe) he ran out of dirty jobs pretty quickly. There is no shortage of homeless individuals in the United States, or worldwide. Homeless Interview’s format could continue on and on and be revitalized over decades. I thought, media wise, that this was a good idea. I also believed that people wanted authentic content, something rarely seen. Many years later I saw a show called “The Last Alaskans” that just really nailed the style and authenticity I was trying to achieve with Project Hi, you know… just unfortunately by myself. Once Brendan moved to Oregon I was really unable to film and edit by myself. Also at that time…this project wasn’t my primary focus and subsequently it didn’t succeed.
What were you focused on then?
I was focused on running a startup company of mine at that point in time, Consultoria. I had also just had my first child, my daughter. Homeless Interviews was one of my ”always many projects”.
You’ve showed Homeless Interviews to academics and it was well received, so why pull down the history you initially said you were worried would never be captured on film?
Yes, young minds at colleges were interested in the project at that time. I might have shown it to a class or two. Saying it was “well received by academics” sounds like an uplifting transformational elaboration. Mostly it seemed that kids from UCLA and USC were interested in just being part of filming something, anything, in Los Angeles.
Homeless Interviews received less than a few thousand views by the time I yanked them off the web in 2017, which was many years after I had uploaded them. Most of the views were correlated through analytics to my (old) tech blog (failedexe) and my flickr followers. It didn’t do so great in the virility sense. Those analytics meant that the handful of views I had were there to support me personally, but that didn’t translate into financial support. I didn’t want the project to be anything about me. I did receive a lot of emails from students asking about the project. The emails still continue to this day. This interview is yet another result of Project Hi.[But] to further clarify, I pulled the interviews down because the intent was never to make “David Leach” the public face of Homeless Interviews. I prefer to be behind a camera, not in front of one. And I believed (and still do today in 2018) it could only succeed with Mike Rowe. At that time I lacked the ability to make that happen, I simply didn’t realize it. As time went on and I cared less about the project, I continued to receive an increasing frequency of emails and calls about Homeless Interviews, so I pulled the videos offline and stopped hosting the Homeless Interviews website. Then you emailed me a link and showed me that the website was back up and asked for this interview.
The actual interviews, can you explain how those worked out?
Sure. Whenever I had a free weekend, and Brendan wasn’t working (he worked for my startup at the time ) we would drive around downtown Los Angeles and look for homeless folks who looked friendly enough to interview. We found most of the interviews on Skid Row in DTLA (downtown Los Angeles). I’d ask if they were ok with an interview on camera about how they became homeless, if they were ok with it, I’d signal to Brendan, who stayed a few yards back, and we’d record on the spot. Of course we had them sign a release form before we started filming.
Skid Row doesn’t sound like the safest place to film?
It’s not. A lot of areas in Los Angeles are not safe for filming. But Skid Row is a whole other world that exists within DTLA. It’s extremely dangerous for certain types of individuals. If anyone is thinking about re-creating something like Homeless Interviews, I cannot stress how important it is to put safety first. Don’t even attempt to film it alone. Homeless individuals are frequently homeless due to psychological issues. There are many crazy individuals on Skid Row. I had many undesirable encounters.
You said it’s extremely dangerous for certain types of individuals, what made you different?
What I mean specifically is that there are certain people on this planet that approach others in life with this “benefit of the doubt” mentality. That will get you jumped, robbed, or killed in Skid Row. Aside from my training in the military, I grew up in the streets, (not proud) was in a gang when I was a kid, and was homeless several times in my life. I understand people from all walks of life because I’ve walked in a lot shoes myself. But had I been incorrect I felt confident I could defend myself and Brendan.
Care to share any of those close encounters?
Sure. A few times we had thugs try to grab the camera from Brendan, or knock it off his shoulders. There was a time when mid-interview the guy’s mental state just flipped like a switch and he starts cussing and threatening us. Another time we had to leave the area because of the arrival of a bunch of “Crypts” gangsters that wanted us out of the area. There were many times when we were filming and LAPD would be nearby handling a situation while addicts shot up heroine directly across the street from them in plain sight. They had zero fear or regard for any authority.
Did you have any memorable interviews or any that stood out from the rest?
Yes. But we both know you’re being tactical and inquiring specifically about the “Time Traveler” interview, the most viewed Youtube video.
One Saturday while Brendan and I working on “H.i.”, a homeless man calmly walks up and asks what we are doing. We explain that we are coincidentally there to film homeless interviews and the man replies, “well I’m not technically homeless”.
I turn the camera on and we start recording.
He said he was from the future but had been sent too far into the past and had to wait another 7 years before he could meet up with “someone who could possibly help him”. Obviously I thought, and for the most part still do, believe I was interviewing someone with psychological issues. A lot of the homeless men we interviewed had a really tough time accepting their reality, frequently stating that they were in fact, not homeless.
However his teeth were fine (not rotted) and he didn’t show any visible signs of drug abuse. He gave an elaborate history of his education in Mathematics and how he came to work on time travel for the US government. He maintained consistent eye contact and spoke clearly and concisely.
During the interview I asked him if he could offer any proof regarding his story and he quickly offered an elaborate explanation of time travel, then he begins spurting out numbers, formulas, and equations. I didn’t think much of it at the time, it wasn’t until I uploaded it to youtube and some people on the internet pointed some things out. It was pointed out that all of his math was perfectly correct, he had given a long equation in which the sum totaled the Speed of light, 1/299792458, and he was correct in explaining the Theory of Relativity and Twins Paradox, which he said we currently had wrong but we would learn this later through an event. It was interesting.
Would you ever re-upload it?
Technically it still is uploaded, just made private. But..no. Next question please.
On the old Homeless Interviews website you had a forum where families could connect with lost ones, was it ever effective in bringing a family back together?
Yes, twice. However those two stories played themselves out rather sadly. One was a trucker from the east coast. We’ll call him Bob. Bob got addicted to meth and ended up selling his big rig to support his meth habit. Ashamed of not providing for his wife and two kids at home, he decided to simply stop all communication with them out of nowhere. All cleaned up (and looking the part) 7 years later I end up filming him and uploading his video to Youtube. He was in the first Homeless Interviews video.
His now grown up son saw the video on Youtube and contacted me through the website. Because Bob had filled out a “talent release form” to be filmed, I had a contact phone number and an address where he could receive mail. Eventually the family was reunited via telephone. For the first two weeks communication was good, almost normal. Then Bob started feeling guilty for having made such poor choices and abandoning his family, he begins to withdraw back into addiction. He starts to call his abandoned family in the late hours of the night in drug and alcohol fueled rages. The family changed numbers and wanted nothing more to do with him.
The second homeless man, we’ll call him Ted, had ran away from home at 17. He was now 42. He had not spoken to his mother in over 25 years. His mother had not moved or changed her number in all those years. A relative of his thought it might be him when he saw Homeless Interviews #3 on youtube and contacted me. In less than a few hours we were able to get Ted on the phone with his overjoyed mother. She believed he was dead the entire time. Ted shared the same pattern as Bob, calling late at night in drug and alcohol fueled rages. His elderly mother couldn’t handle hearing her son in such a dismal state and subsequently changed her number as well. She said she had finally “closed the book” on her son’s disappearance.
As I stated previously, a significant portion of homeless individuals are homeless because of mental instability or psychological issues. In order to have actually helped these families, or anyone, I needed support.
Do you ever feel like it was recording someone’s life in their lowest point and just broadcasting it online?
No. This wasn’t “Bumfights” or exploitative. Nobody sold the videos or made profit on them. I sure as hell didn’t. And we didn’t just record footage and upload it online. We digged deep, asked questions about their beliefs, their upbringing, hometown, favorite songs that reminded them of their childhood or happy times in their lives. We inquired what comforted them and what upset them. We used that information to retell their story to create what you saw on Homeless Interviews 1-9. Today there are thousands of socially accepted reality shows that document the (private) happy or glamorous moments and events in someone’s life and if you listen to my first answer when we started this interview I said my “why” behind creating Homeless Interviews was that by capturing and telling their stories, that I was documenting a part of history that would never be captured on film, because of this exact idealism. Difficult moments in life should be recorded as well. I do fully agree that there is a level of delicacy and responsible discretion that needs to go into the artistic presentation of something like this. If anyone ever felt this way though, I’d imagine someone would have commented after all those years they sat online. That never happened.
You’ve worked on some film projects in the last couple years, do you think you would ever consider picking Homeless Interviews back up?
A few years ago it would be a hard no. I’ve only worked on a handful of friend’s film projects since I retired from tech in 2015. Filming/Cinematography was never my (primary) job or focus. I’m a data scientist but I have a passion for film and cinematography, but…it has always been a secondary to data science for me. Data science was also phenomenally better at paying my bills. Subsequently the film endeavor suffered. Now that I am retired and have more free time, who knows, I highly doubt it, but I won’t dismiss the possibility. Someone get Mike (Rowe) onboard first and maybe we’ll talk.