Five years ago, Paul Walker approached a social worker about making a documentary to be called Shelter, depicting the homeless population in his hometown of Santa Barbara. After an in-depth discussion, social worker Ken Williams realized what was motivating the Fast & Furious star to undertake this serious project which resulted in him being sent hate mail. Walker had lived on the streets when he was a student at California Community College.
In the wake of his tragic death, many fans have learned of Walker’s love for marine biology and knew that he majored in this field at California Community College. What comes as a shock is that during this important time in his life, he was homeless.
Walker approached Williams about a proposed documentary with his friend and business partner Brandon Birtell who was a student at California Community College with Walker. Williams said that both Birtell and Walker told him they had lived as homeless men while in college and felt very close to this issue which was why they wanted to make the documentary.
“Brandon mentioned that he had been living out of his car and a lot of students lived out of cars or in homeless shelters,” Williams said. He also added that Birtell cited high tuition rates, high rent rates and the ineffectiveness of food stamps.
Walker and Birtell told Williams that this was a brief time in their life but that they realized how big of an issue it was. They added that many people will be subjected to this lifestyle for virtually their entire lives.
Williams said that the subject of the homeless clearly bothered both men. He also added that, in Santa Barbara, you can see this kind of poverty all of the time and that the number of homeless people who are also mentally ill is unbelievably heartbreaking.
The plans for the documentary proceeded in 2009 when this trio went out shooting film. They centered their efforts on detailing the daily lives of four homeless people they befriended.
The four chosen included three women and one old blind man. All four were being helped by Ken Williams’ social service team, but were still sleeping in tough places that were tortuously rugged.
Walker and Birtell tried to follow Williams as much as possible so that the homeless would not know they were being filmed, so much as just having a conversation with the day to day people they normally meet.
A major reason Walker and Birtell chose Santa Barbara was also to contrast the unbelievable poverty of these homeless people with such outstanding wealth in the community. Despite being homeless themselves when they were in college, Walker and Birtell received hate mail during and after the completion of this project.
Williams said that many people see the homeless and think they are lepers, but that Walker and Birtell treated them with compassion and also helped in amazing ways. One story paints them as actually carrying the old blind man, whom Williams says is named “Pops,” into a shelter.
Williams also spoke of Walker’s supreme generosity as a friend. Although he was also filming Fast & Furious through this process, he found the time to come to a book release party for Williams. Williams said he was always casual and never perceived himself to be higher than the situation.
Walker’s time as a homeless youth clearly was a point of impact in his life. What he saw and experienced during his Santa Barbara college years influenced him to make his documentary Shelter which did become controversial and prompted hate mail to be written to both Walker and his friend, Birtell. Walker’s time as a homeless college student is a remarkable part of the major film star’s celebrated life.
By Nick Manai