Anthony, a homeless Chicago teen

The Homestretch, the latest social-issue documentary from Kartemquin Films, succeeds surprisingly well in having its cake and eating it too. Directors Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly persuasively indict America’s failure to assist homeless teenagers, which a title estimates at 1.6 million people. Yet the stories they present are genuinely uplifting, charting the lives of three homeless Chicago teens as they find housing, complete their high school educations, and ready themselves for the adult world. De Mare and Kelly are up-front about the challenges their subjects face—chiefly their memories of abuse and abandonment—though the tone remains optimistic. It’s an impressive balancing act.

The opening scenes are unpromising, hinting at a bogus feel-good entertainment. De Mare and Kelly first introduce Roque, a high school senior taken in by one of his former teachers after living on the streets for a few years. The teacher, Maria Rivera, inspires admiration within moments, as she relates how she’s given the boy a sense of family (his father, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, stopped caring for him in early adolescence) and encouraged him to be a more serious student. Now he enjoys literature and hopes to go to college.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Roque is one of the lucky ones. Before introducing the other two teens, De Mare and Kelly visit a north-side shelter for homeless youth. The facility seems like a model operation, providing meals and a sense of inclusiveness. (One point made by The Homestretch is that many teenagers are expelled by their families because they’re gay or transgender; several of the aid workers in the film are also LGBT rights advocates.) Unfortunately the shelter can house only 20 kids overnight, and as many as 40 usually show up looking for a place to sleep. Teen Living Programs, a nonprofit organization that provides the other main subjects with housing and job training, is similarly overtaxed; even those teens approved for housing must wait an average of six months before a space becomes available.

Anthony and Kacey, the other subjects, have clearly benefited from the intervention of Teen Living Programs. Anthony seems enthusiastic to learn about computer technology so he can get a good job and provide for his infant son, who’s currently living in foster care. Kacey, a lesbian who was kicked out by her mother, has learned to control her violent impulses with the help of social workers and the friends she’s met in the program. In fact every public aid program shown in The Homestretch comes off in a positive light; the problem, De Mare and Kelly argue, isn’t that we don’t know how to aid homeless youth effectively, but that the effective programs are too few and tragically underfunded.