When high school senior Joel Yoon first heard of a controversial Santa Clarita city law that had been amended to prevent the homeless from “living” in public places, he got worried.
Yoon thought the municipal code, which gave city officials the right to address any encampment or dwelling and kick people off sidewalks, was unfair. And he wanted to do something about it.
“I felt I had a cherished, inescapable responsibility to fight for these people,” he said.
And Yoon is doing exactly that. He is creating a project called, “Awesometown,” which will be a short documentary series depicting the day-to-day lives and histories of people living on the streets of Santa Clarita.
Through collaborations with local organizations such as Bridge to Home and Newhall Savia Church, Yoon has documented multiple stories from the field. From single mothers losing their kids to drug violence, to individuals who are unemployed despite speaking over 10 languages, he has met people with differing accounts and emotions about their predicament.
Most were victims of unfortunate circumstances, but a few were against Yoon’s project because they had in some form chosen to remain homeless.
“There was actually one homeless lady that said some of these people like not having responsibility,” Yoon said. “She doesn’t want that accountability. The biggest thing she says is giving homeless people (aid) is a short-term fix, but at the same time, people won’t learn how to take care of themselves with this system if you don’t teach them skills. It’s like giving them fish but no fishing pole.”
In the six months since he began the project, Yoon has been able to connect with people at the Bridge to Home homeless shelter and through various events. He plans the series to be multiple eight- to 10-minute episodes focusing on one individual per installment. The series is planned for distribution to the William S. Hart Union High School District schools, and he is also trying to coordinate with local news stations.
The intent of the project is to take back the name, “Awesometown,” which has become an iconic — and ironic — Santa Clarita nickname, he said of the word, which was created nearly a decade ago as part of a marketing campaign for new master-planned housing communities in Valencia.
“We call ourselves ‘Awesometown,’ and growing up here, I definitely used to think this place was perfect and had absolutely nothing wrong with it,” he said. “And it does have some great qualities. But I want to destroy any mindset of, ‘I’m better than you,’ that exists here. And I want to speak out against the city passing laws that keep the illusion of us being ‘Awesometown,’ but are actually irresponsible and don’t fit what makes a town actually awesome.”
Yoon hopes the documentary series’ legacy in highlighting the homeless in Santa Clarita will outlive his time in the valley when he graduates from West Ranch High School this spring, he said.
Yoon and his classmates also created a pop-up shop called “Oasis” for the homeless headquartered at Global Prep Academy at the end of December. Although it only ran for a weekend, the shop echoed Yoon’s drive to make sure people are aware of the issues first and foremost. And he plans on keeping that alive with others to pass it on to.
“I don’t think the tradeoff to making Santa Clarita an awesome place to live is equal,” he said. “It comes at a cost. Lots of the people in the series have lived their whole lives in Santa Clarita, and felt the city turned their backs on them as soon as they lost their livelihoods. So we all want to keep combating and destroying that unique stigma we have here against the homeless.”
The “Awesometown” project is scheduled to premiere online at https://joelyoon.wixsite.com/awesometownscv in the upcoming weeks.