The Pursuit of Happyness: How Individuals that Experience Homelessness Perceive in Film

According to the Bay Area Council Poll in 2022, 86% of voters agreed that the issue of homelessness has deteriorated within the past few years and want a change. This is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of jobs, a lack of affordable and accessible housing, and many more unfortunate situations. According to San Francisco’s government website, 8,011 people were experiencing homelessness in 2019 during the point-in-time street and shelter count, which has made a 14% increase compared to 2017. As we can see, it is troubling to see the data regarding how many individuals are experiencing homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, other than seeing this population that experiences homelessness as a number that increases throughout the years, let’s see how they perceive through the film industry. 

When I think about movies or TV shows that cover the topic of homelessness, I think about the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness with Will and Jaden Smith. Disregarding their controversy in today’s society, this movie has brought light to what not many other filmmakers showcase, which is the ongoing issue of homelessness. Based on a true story of a single father, Chris Gardner, that went from experiencing homelessness to being a successful businessman in the 1980s in San Francisco. Gardner was undergoing not only homelessness, but his wife left him and their son due to their financial situation. This film simply tells the truth about the challenging incidents that people who experience homelessness might go through and bring some humanity back to them for the public. The Pursuit of Happyness takes the title of a misspelling from the line of the US Declaration of Independence. As Chris Gardner explains, Thomas Jefferson says happiness is not guaranteed. That’s what you have to pursue. The cast features Thandiwe Newton as Linda Gardner, and the script written by Steve Conrad is based upon Chris Gardner’s best-selling book, The Pursuit of Happyness.

During this time, millions of single adults, families, and adolescents have experienced homelessness on the streets for the first time in decades. In addition, during this time, the federal government also stopped building new, affordable rural homes. The underfunded local homeless program and the state-sponsored 10-year plan only helped to perpetuate the negative homeless stereotypes against the individuals that experience homelessness themselves. However, the root cause of today’s homelessness is primarily overcrowding. There are too many people, and there are not enough affordable homes. This problem is most likely addressed by victims of domestic violence, with immigrants being low-wage earners like Gardner in front of real estate agents’ schools and earning too little to pay their rent, which is often depicted in movies.

Through courage, diligence, and endurance, this film implies that individuals can challenge the powerful systematic powers driven by the people that encounter homelessness and prosper. On the one hand, this can have a motivational effect, but it also subtly devalues people that undergo homelessness. 

The homelessness problem is exacerbated when many politicians, government officials, local governments, corporate interests, and journalists consider the people that experience homelessness to be the main cause of the homeless problem and to be losers, addicts, maniacs, lazy and incompatible. This assumption leads to negative stereotypes of those that are unhoused. The entire population that experiences homelessness stereotyped of being lazy, inherently delinquent, medicated, or being too mentally challenged to hire. This movie reinforces such a negative stereotype about the homeless. Images of men without housing roaming around with Gardner’s stolen bone density scanner strengthen the stereotype that all homeless people are mentally ill, believing that it is a time machine of the 1960s.

Overall, The Pursuit of Happyness does have mixed reviews on how they portray individuals that experience homelessness. The film gives viewers the misunderstanding that everyone can get out of the vicious cycle of poverty with great effort, patience and determination. It does not fully understand the larger social structures, functions, and mechanisms, but focuses only on the role of the individual. It simply pretends to be an American dream and keeps the myth of merits alive.


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