Our reading for this week is from “Homeless Children Living on the Highway to Disney World.”
12-year-old Melissa was always on the move, wondering in and out of people’s rooms and climbing the trees by the parking lot. She moved into the hotel two years ago with her dad and her brother. There room is one of thousands on Highway 192, one of the main arteries leading to the throbbing heart of Central Florida economy that is Disney world. Her dad had lost his job in a wine shop and couldn’t afford the $1200 to put down a security deposit for an apartment. He said he moved into the hotel thinking it would just be a quick fix, which is how a long term stay usually begins. He applied to 167 restaurants and heard back from only one, but he didn’t get the job. Melissa said she has her whole life planned out. She wants to go to college, then live on a farm with her dad and lots of animals. But two years later, she is still living in the hotel, this time with her mom and her brother, and because they couldn’t pay even that rent, they live on the floor of one of their neighbor’s rooms.
Our movie with a message for this week is The Florida Project, on Netflix, a 2017 independent film that brings into the open some of America’s hidden homeless, who live in what were once budget hotels for tourists in Kissimmee, Florida, in the shadow of Disney World. The title, The Florida Project, was what Walt Disney called Disney World when he was just beginning to make plans for it.The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was critically acclaimed, but was snubbed at the Oscars, except for a nomination for Willem Defoe, because as many critics pointed out, America does not want to see its own abject poverty, especially women and children, who make up a disproportionate share. It was filmed at the hotel it portrays, The Magic Castle, off highway 192, which is surrounded by strip clubs and knock-off souvenir shops. And, except for Defoe, the director hired first time actors for the primary roles, and children who actually lived in the hotel for secondary roles and extras. It tells the story of Halley and her 6-year-old daughter Moonie, as they struggle to make ends meet. When Halley loses her job in a strip club, she is no longer eligible for temporary assistance for needy families. Unskilled, unkempt, and unruly, she is not the type of girl that Disney would hire. No one else will either. She watches one of the other children living in the hotel in exchange for a daily free meal the boy’s mother sneaks from her job in a waffle joint. But Halley doesn’t really watch either of the children. She doesn’t know how to parent Moonie. She is so young, they are more like siblings. All day, the children roam the hotel grounds and stray too far away from home. They beg for money from tourists to buy ice cream. And they engage in dangerous activities, including burning down an abandoned condo when they stuff a pillow in the fire place and light it with a lighter they found. But Halley does love Moonie. And she tries as well as she knows how to make sure she doesn’t go hungry. She buys cheap perfume at the gas station and they try to sell it at the nicer hotels. When no one buys it, they ask for money. When there is no longer enough money to pay the rent, Halley turns to prostitution, locking Moonie in the bathroom with loud music when she has a customer. She is found out, and Child Protective Services comes to remove Moonie. Moonie goes to say goodbye to her friend who lives in another hotel, and in desperation, they run, down a long road and across the highway. Two 6-year-olds. In the last scene, they have made it into Disney world and are running toward Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom.
The movie shows the desperate lives of children and their parents who have nowhere else to live and no one to depend on. As we heard in the reading, even the cheapest apartments require a deposit, and poor people, even if they are working, don’t make enough money to save up for that when their children are hungry. So they live hand to mouth in these hotels, paying by the week.
One of the major themes in the Florida Project is the irony of these places being right next to Disney World, billed as the happiest place on earth, but these children will never be able to afford to visit. It highlights the two Americas, the ruling class and the underclass, side by side. In one scene, Halley steals from a customer 4 magic bands he had bought for his family’s trip to the Magic Kingdom, which cost him $1700 dollars. Halley and Moonie live in a non-magical kingdom, which serves up despair and desperation instead of the pleasure and diversion of the magic one. And the final scene tells us that, although these little girls are running with all their might to the Magic Kingdom for rescue, there is no magic coming their way, and no rescue. This is their life. According to the U.S. Department of education, over 2000 children live in hotels in central Florida, and that’s not counting those that are too young for school, or who have escaped notice by the authorities. Right here. And we either don’t know about it or don’t know what to do about it. Although Moonie and her friends are sometimes too mischievous for their own or others good, they are able to find adventure while hanging out all day in the hot sun around run-down hotels, with no money and little food. But they shouldn’t have to. They are children! They should be able to experience all of what life has to offer. They should have the same opportunities and benefits as our children do. I hope you will watch this movie. It does have strong language, but it is realistic for the characters. If it had won the academy award, the director says, many more people would know about these families and, hopefully, would be moved to help. May we at New Vision, who are always looking for ways to help our neighbors, search for concrete ways to help these children and their families. Because in the ‘Land of the Free,’ they are not free. Amen.