‘Breaking the Cycle’ of Homelessness

A former federal agent and a local filmmaker have teamed up to tell the stories of Milwaukee’s homeless community in a new documentary.

“People, by and large, judge the homeless,” says Jessica Farrell, the producer of a forthcoming documentary about chronic homelessness in Milwaukee.

“However, when you hear about how they ended up on the streets without a home, it puts a new perspective on things. They’re no longer the bum sleeping on the street or the scary guy panhandling near the exit ramp. You see the person. You see the humanity, not the circumstance.”

Jessica Farrell. Photo by Jeennifer Johnson.
Jessica Farrell. Photo by Jeennifer Johnson.

Farrell, a full-time producer at a Milwaukee advertising agency who graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee with a BFA in Film and Photography, has been working on the documentary, titled 30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle, for the past five years. She and the film’s director, Faith Kohler, a former federal agent and Marquette University Law School graduate, launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month to raise $5,000 to complete the film which, until now, has been self-financed.

They hit their initial fundraising goal in the first three days of the campaign. Their new stretch goal of $8,000 was met before the campaign’s end date, July 1.

During her career in law enforcement, Kohler — who is making her feature directorial debut with 30 Seconds Away — volunteered for organizations involved with Milwaukee’s homeless community. While volunteering at a shelter in 2009, she met Harold Sloan, a homeless man she would eventually befriend. Sloan became the first homeless person the wife and mother of three teenage sons came to be in serious contact with.

Sloan wasn’t terribly trusting of police officers when they met, Kohler says, but he eventually began to open up to her about his struggle to get off the streets. He completely confounded any preconceived notions she had about how someone becomes homeless and oftentimes remains homeless.

“As my relationship with Harold grew, I wanted to document his story,” she says. “He was unlike anyone I had ever met. He introduced me to so many people in the homeless community that had intriguing stories.”

Faith Kohler. Photo by Jennifer Birney.
Faith Kohler. Photo by Jennifer Birney.

With no background in filmmaking, Kohler was in need of an ally to get the proverbial ball rolling. Enter UWM film professor Dick Blau, a mutual friend of both Kohler and Farrell’s. In 2010, Kohler approached him with her idea and he in turn introduced her to Farrell and a fellow classmate who shared interests in the homeless.

“I actually started working on this project when I was still a student,” says Farrell.

During their junior and senior years, Farrell and her friend, Alex Block (one of the film’s main cinematographers and “a big supporter of the film,” according to Farrell) would go “urban exploring” every week. During these explorations, they met many people in the local homeless community, and became friends with some they regularly encountered.

“We’d see them every week, bring them food, water, clothing, whatever they needed,” says Farrell. “Dick Blau, our film professor, was aware of what we were doing. He was also aware of Faith’s desire to make a film about Harold. She needed help to make that happen. So Dick connected Alex and me to Faith, and here we are five years and thousands of hours of footage later.”

Kohler recalls how tricky it was to organize schedules in the beginning.

“When they were in school and I was working in law enforcement, our schedules were brutal. We would convene at all hours of the night,” she says. “That’s when part of Milwaukee’s underground is much more alive. There were lots of long weekends and long nights those first couple of years.”

Thanks to her extensive background in law enforcement, Kohler routinely accessed risk factors throughout filming. Wherever they went, she was always armed. When filming took the crew into dangerous areas, law enforcement friends of hers would volunteer to tag along. In order to keep tensions at bay during filming, everybody wore casual clothes.

Production still from '30 Seconds Away.' Photo by Alex Block.
Production still from ’30 Seconds Away.’ Photo by Alex Block.

Filming on 30 Seconds Away is pretty much complete. The issue of homelessness is never-ending.

According to both Kohler and Farrell, this could very well be the first in a series of films about the subject, particularly in light of some very encouraging developments.

On June 11, the day before the film’s Kickstarter campaign began, Farrell and Kohler showed the film’s trailer at a symposium called “Change for the Community-Solutions that Make Real Sense,” organized by Milwaukee Downtown’s BID 21 and the Downtown Security Network.

Held at Manpower’s headquarters, a number of Milwaukee’s Downtown business representatives attended the half-day event where members of city and county leadership revealed a plan to end chronic homelessness in Milwaukee within three years.

Among those in attendance: Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele, Police Chief Ed Flynn, Director of Health and Human Services for Milwaukee County Héctor Colón, District Attorney John Chisholm and City Attorney Grant Langley.

It was the first time footage from the documentary had been shown publicly. It was met with a positive response.

“We’ve been trying to put a spotlight on homelessness in the city for five years,” says Farrell. “This new initiative is a step in the right direction and is very encouraging.”

Kohler and Farrell anticipate completing the film this year. They’re eager to get the film, which they say will run approximately 90 minutes, ready so they can start screening it.

“We made this film for Milwaukee,” Kohler said.

Asked about whether they plan on entering the documentary into festivals or plan on securing a television broadcast, Kohler and Farrell both chimed in.

“As Harold would say…,“ started Kohler. “…All of the above,” finished Kohler and Farrell, in unison.

To learn more about 30 Seconds Away, visit the film’s official website.

To donate to the film’s Kickstarter campaign, click here.




At the ripe age of 12, award-winning writer and aspiring filmmaker Mack Bates announced that he wanted to be “the black Peter Jennings.” This followed his earlier desire to be an astronaut and a cowboy. He’s sat through SpaceCamp, more times than he cares to share, and thanks to his tenure as a boy scout, has lassoed a steer or two. Journalism indeed beckoned, and Mack has written for a variety of publications and outlets since high school, including JUMP, the Leader, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and ReelTalk Movie Reviews. Mack has won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club in both the collegiate and professional divisions dating back to 1999. In 2013, he became the first writer to win the press club’s “best critical review” award in both competitive divisions. Also in 2013, Mack was among a group of adult mentors and teens who took part in the 2012 Milwaukee Summer Entertainment Camp to be honored by the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the group behind the Emmy Awards) with a Crystal Pillar Award for excellence in high school television production.