Roque Sanchez in "The Homestretch"

Monday, November 3, 2014

Where are you now?

That’s the question Roque Sanchez receives from the audience after every screening of “The Homestretch,” a documentary about three homeless Chicago teens—Kasey, Anthony and Roque—that debuted in September to glowing reviews.

The answer to that question is complicated, but here’s part of it: He is a student at Northeastern Illinois University, he does maintain a relationship with his parents, and he has a roof over his head. On Nov. 18, Sanchez’s story continues at Northeastern when the movie screens twice on the main campus, accompanied by post-show panel discussions. Both screenings are free and open to the public.

“People just hug me after the screenings,” said Sanchez, a soft-spoken 19-year-old whose experiences with homelessness were exacerbated by his family’s undocumented status. “They offer their help. They say they are proud of us and we have more to achieve. That’s nice. It’s good to hear that you’ve done well and your case isn’t hopeless.”

In the documentary, Sanchez has been taken in by Maria Rivera, one of his teachers at Gage Park Academy. Rivera, who earned her B.A. from Northeastern in Secondary Education and English in 2008, is shown taking Sanchez to Northeastern’s main campus to seek guidance from English department chair Tim Libretti.

“I didn’t know I was going to college or that I even wanted to until she told me it was possible,” said Sanchez, who still lives with Rivera.

Now he is in his second year at Northeastern.

“I really enjoy being here,” said Sanchez, who has not yet chosen a major. “The school has great teachers who are enthusiastic about coming here, and the students show that enthusiasm back.”

Rivera said she has high hopes for Sanchez’s future.

“I have no problem ever sending a student to Northeastern because I’m comfortable with the size of the school and the attention they’re going to receive there,” said Rivera, who now teaches at Curie Metro High School. “My hope is that Roque finds a way to be successful on his own terms.”

Film promotion has taken Sanchez to screenings from San Francisco to Philadelphia. While he looks forward to carving out a life for himself apart from the film, Sanchez has become a fighter for youth homelessness awareness. He is an advocate for the National Youth Advisory Council and is active with the National Network for Youth.

“Youth homelessness is a cause that is hidden,” Sanchez said. “People try to avoid it because it’s awkward, but it’s important to see it because it’s everywhere. It’s international.”

Often with homeless children, Sanchez said, families are just not prepared to take care of a child. He hopes “The Homestretch” helps remove the stigma around homeless youths.

“The kids aren’t the problem,” he said. “They want to get out of a bad situation like anyone else and to succeed in life. … It’s not about kids who are junkies or rebels who scream at their parents.”

Rivera, who will join Sanchez at the Nov. 18 screenings, hopes the movie’s audiences “personalize” the issue.

“I hope they will look out for the students who need their help and provide some real support,” she said. “There is hope in these stories, but there also is a huge amount of realism. … These are bodies we’re losing on a daily basis. They can’t afford to wait for us to figure out what to do.”