The movie poster of "The Invisible Class," where a homeless man is shown walking through a tunnel.
The movie poster for Josh Hayes's new film, "The Invisible Class." Courtesy of Josh Hayes.

Josh Hayes stumbled onto the subject of homelessness almost by accident. He was working on a photography project when he came upon a novel idea. Instead of taking thousands of photos of the Golden Gate Bridge like all his other classmates, Hayes thought he could focus his project on something slightly more challenging. For him, people as subjects seemed far more interesting. 

And so Hayes approached a man he saw who was homeless in a park and asked the man if it would be all right to photograph him in exchange for some money. The man agreed. They later had a talk that would change  Hayes’s life. 

What happened next is the subject of Hayes’s new film, “The Invisible Class.” It is the result of eleven years of research and thousands of hours of taped video and audio interviews. The film takes place nation-wide over the span of one 24-hour period to explain what Hayes says are the three major causes of homelessness (“the attack on affordable housing,” income inequality, and criminalization). Although Hayes will not admit to this, the story told here, in many ways, resembles Hayes’s own journey of discovery into the subject of homelessness. 

It starts first with a glimpse of the facts. Viewers learn from an advocate named Richard Troxell, who is based in Texas, how the term “homeless” was coined. The term was accepted into common vernacular around the time when single room occupancies disappeared from the housing market. As Troxell explains, “they became condos, they became parking lots [because] the YMCA got out of the business.”

The Invisible Class: The Story of Homelessness In America

Movie trailer via

Through Troxell, the audience also learns that in the United States it is possible for someone to work forty hours a week and not make enough money to afford a place to live.  

At this point, the cracks in the figurative dam Hayes has built for viewers break. And Hayes unleashes a flood of uncomfortable images of people being forcibly evicted from a makeshift tent encampment in the middle of a snowstorm. 

What makes this film interesting from a creative standpoint, is its lack of narration, and its lack of a central protagonist. The only people who speak (at length) in this film are those who are experiencing homelessness, and those who advocate for them. Although Hayes said this was not a deliberate decision on his part, it is no accident that these are the only people given real speaking roles. Since there is no overarching protagonist, the focus of this film is flipped onto the viewer, who must sit through a series of hard to watch scenes. 

Early on, the audience is introduced to a homeless man named Justin who lives in South Salt Lake, Utah. Over the span of eight gut-wrenching minutes, Justin talks about his alcoholism, his loneliness, and his desire to be reunited with family. At one point, Justin lashes out at the filmmaker in series of expletives for having provoked him. The scene concludes with Justin apologizing for his abrupt outburst. It is excruciating to watch. 

It feels jarring, emotional, almost exploitative. When I saw it for the first time, I wanted to look away. I did not want to hear about Justin’s alcoholism or see him in such a vulnerable state. It was clear to me, that Justin was not just emotionally unstable, but that he suffered from severe problems with his mental well-being. It made me wonder how ethical it was for Hayes to film him. And then it made me think of how unethical it would be for me to ignore Justin and his story.  

This is precisely what makes this film so brilliant. It is not a movie you want to watch. It is a movie that you have to see. To ignore someone’s hardship and suffering because it makes you feel bad is simply unacceptable. 

protesters march in Washington, DC

A still image from the film, “The Invisible Class.” Photo courtesy of Josh Hayes.

Hayes’s intended viewer is not someone experiencing homelessness, but someone who hasn’t the slightest idea of what homelessness entails (which is where Hayes found himself eleven years ago). Advocates will also find the film is a useful tool for education and may offer them insight into how homelessness became ubiquitous. The film is, according to Hayes, “a call to action.” Not a film that is meant to entertain. 

Viewers should keep this in mind as they prepare themselves to watch this movie. The jarring transitions between scenes might make you feel like you’ve been seized by the lapels and shaken violently. Hayes takes viewers to encampment cleanups, to family shelters, to places where people endure abuse and are often ignored. This film is an uncomfortable journey of discovery into the lives of those who live as this Nation’s “invisible class.”  

Correction (10.25.2019)

This article has been updated to show that the film identifies a shortage of affordable housing as the top cause of homelessness in the United States. The initial version had instead listed “substance abuse and mental illness” along with the other two causes the filmmaker highlighted: income inequality and criminalization.