Menlo Park filmmaker focuses on plight of pregnant homeless women

in Community/Featured/Headline

About five years ago, Laura Ferro chanced to be watching the television news and saw a segment about a pregnant homeless woman in San Francisco, who was facing the prospect of giving birth at a bus stop. The woman’s desperate circumstance troubled Ferro, a filmmaker living comfortably in Menlo Park – who happened at the time to be expecting a child too. “I didn’t have a connection to the homeless community until that point,” she says. That unlikely moment was the inspiration for a documentary which Ferro has been working on for the past three years, “Pregnant on the Streets” in the San Francisco Bay Area. The expectant mothers, who are almost invisible on the fringes in an area brimming with wealth, are shown as they experience the difficulties of life on the street, either navigating social service agencies or lost in a fog of mental health issues and drugs, Ferro says.

A native of Argentina who came to the U.S. eight years ago, Ferro connected with Tony Gapastione, founder of the filmmaking nonprofit called Bravemaker, and told him about her project. He put her in touch with Pastor Dave Shearin and his wife Shawn of Street Life Ministries, a Redwood City-based organization with an extensive meal and outreach program to the homeless community. Shawn Shearin provided the entrée to Ferro to go to homeless camps and find pregnant women willing to tell their stories. At an earlier period in her life, Shawn had been homeless and pregnant too (in Seattle), but was able to get into a shelter and turned her life around. Through the Street Life ministry, Shawn already had a relationship with most of the women she introduced Ferro to, “and I was able to explain what we were doing and they were very open to it.”

The documentary, a color film which will be 30 to 40 minutes long, follows three homeless women over three years, from the time when they were pregnant until after their babies were born. One of the women was determined to stop using drugs for the sake of her child, Ferro says. She accepted help that has enabled her to get a job and today is providing for her son. Another woman, unfortunately, is back on the street and had to surrender her child. Ferro says the women she interviewed appreciated the opportunity to be heard and that anyone would think their stories are important.

About 60 percent of the documentary has been completed, and Ferro plans to do more interviews with experts on homelessness including doctors and social services providers. She has established a GoFundMe account at https://gf.me/u/y82g26 to raise the estimated $66,000 needed for completion and is also seeking other individual and organizational supporters. Bravemaker, which is a 501(c)( 3) organization, is the fiscal sponsor to receive donations. Ferro does videos for corporate clients—to get an idea about her work, visit Rebelmonk.com—but “Pregnant on the Streets” is her first documentary. After it’s completed, she plans to submit it to film festivals and, once Covid-19 allows, to screen the film for local audiences. She hopes people who see her video will be encouraged to reach out and build relationships with homeless people rather than just walk on by. “Many people,” she says, “don’t want to look. Through the documentary, we have a tool to show that there are women like us that have the same values. They want to do what’s best for the child and fight for them.”

Thirty-plus years ago Roy Klebe was making a sales call at Muir Woods for his company, Hike America, and bought a redwood burl to put in water at home. Very few take-home burls will actually take root and become a tree, but “this one rooted,” Klebe says, “and the rest is history.” Today the little burl is all grown up, towering 100 feet in the backyard of his home at 321 West Oakwood Blvd. in Redwood City. With the Christmas holidays approaching in this year of turmoil, Klebe decided it would be a good time to top his improbable survivor with a lighted star. A friend who is licensed to climb trees attached the PVC pipe creation to the top of the tree, and the white lights came on in early November. “It’s five feet wide and it does look pretty cool, even if I do say so myself,” Klebe, 69, says. “It’s one of the things I’ve been talking about the last 10 years, and the way the world’s going, there’s no guarantees there’s any tomorrow,” he says with a laugh, “so you’d better do it now.” His goal was to give people a lift when they see the star atop his tree, and that’s exactly what’s been happening. “When everyone’s kind of melancholy, it just puts a smile on people’s faces.”

Restaurant owners who have retooled for takeout and then created outdoor dining spaces have certainly been battle-tested this year. So extra points for bravery seem in order for Zareen Khan, who in mid-October opened a restaurant on Broadway in downtown Redwood City. “Zareen’s,” as it is called, features Pakistani and Indian cuisine and is the third restaurant the Saratoga resident has launched (the others are in Mountain View, in 2014, and in Palo Alto in 2016.)

Khan and her family hail from Karachi, Bombay and Punjab. All the women in her family are “amazing cooks,” she says, and she learned how to cook growing up. She came to the United States 28 years ago and got into the food business after 12 years in corporate America. Khan says she’d been looking for a location for a third restaurant for two years, from Santa Clara to San Mateo, before finding a spot at 2039 Broadway. “I just like the downtown,” she says. “It’s very high energy.”

At least it was before the Covid restrictions arrived, and Kahn admits that taking the plunge to open was stressful. “But it took me so long to find a place in Redwood City that I didn’t want to let go of this opportunity,” she says. “I think long-term it will be fine … just kind of lie low for the next six months and hope we can survive the pandemic,” she adds laughing. Zareen’s is a bright space with high ceilings, and eventually she hopes people can come to hear independent artists, such as at open-mike evenings; see films or gather socially. The menu features gourmet kababs, samosas, curries and more—and a delicious Chai tea. Kahn says part of her mission with her restaurants is to generate funds to support nonprofits in keeping with her values, such as for civil rights, women’s empowerment and education. When customers come in and have a great time, she adds, “you’re not just serving just food here. You’re in the business of making somebody’s day better. They come here. Maybe they’ve had a bad day and they have a good time. Then it’s mission accomplished for us.”

The year of the Covid has imposed an open-ended pause on the events that made downtown Redwood City such a dynamic place, among them the annual Hometown Holidays festivities always held early in December. The event brought scores of families downtown for activities like arts and crafts, music, a chance to see Santa, a tree-lighting and a parade. The Downtown Business Group has come up with an alternative to give back to the community and it will be a parade of decorated cars on Saturday, Dec. 19 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. They’ll drive up to Courthouse Square where the kids can see Santa and get a bag of candy, donated by Grocery Outlet, according to DBG Executive Director Regina Van Brunt. The Chan Zuckerberg Foundation is sponsoring the music. Vehicles are to be decorated at home, and participants must sign up in advance since there’s a limit on how many will be allowed. “We’re lucky that we even get to do this. No one can stay on Courthouse Square to watch it,” Van Brunt says. “Everybody has to move along. We’re not letting large crowds congregate because of the virus.” For information, go to the hometownholidays.org website under hometownholidaysonparade.

This story was originally published in the December print edition of Climate Magazine.

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