Lady_in_the_Van_2.jpgGreg Bar (right) of the NOAH Shelter talks about homelessness as Cape Cod Academy’s Larry Brown looks on.

In the independent film, “The Lady in the Van,” actress Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) plays a real-life homeless woman, Mary Shepherd, who became a part of the fabric of a middle class London neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s.

There she lived for 15 years in a van parked in playwright Alan Bennett’s (Alex Jennings) driveway. Some take pity on her, others judge her and a few bully her.

This artistic representation of homelessness is something that Greg Bar is all too familiar with as the facility director of the NOAH Shelter. There he sees men and women, ranging in age from 18 to over 80, all looking for a thread of hope to hold on to. “When people come to NOAH, they’ve lost everything,” Bar said. “There are no other options. They have used up their friend’s couches and their family’s extra rooms. They have tried it all and that is how they ended up with us.”

Bar made the comment the first week of February when he was one of three panelists to talk about homelessness at the Cape Cinema in Dennis, following an advanced screening of “The Lady in the Van.” Over $1,800 was raised from the event to support HAC’s housing programs which include operating four homeless shelters on Cape Cod.

The film touches upon people’s perceptions of the homeless which five students at Cape Cod Academy experienced firsthand last fall. Under the guidance of teacher Larry Brown, the eighth graders visited the NOAH Shelter, CHAMP Homes and Homeless Not Hopeless, Inc., all in Hyannis, where they sat down with homeless men and women, interviewed them and took their portraits.

Lady_in_the_Van_4.jpgCape Cod Academy’s Larry Brown (from left), Alan Burt of Homeless Not Hopeless and Greg Bar, facility director at the NOAH Shelter were the three panelists to discuss homelessness following the advanced screening of “The Lady in the Van” at the Cape Cinema.

Brown, who joined Bar on stage, spoke about the genesis of that project which was prompted by a letter to the editor printed in the Cape Cod Times. “It may have started with a visitor to the Cape who complained that we’re supposed to be Shangri-La here,” Brown said. “We’re not supposed to have homeless people and it’s supposed to be beautiful here.”

That letter, he said, “made me angry and it hurt too.” And so he tasked his students to meet Cape Cod’s homeless to better understand them.

The goal of the student project, Brown said, was that attitudes towards the homeless would begin to change. “I’m hoping, what we all – the kids and I – were hoping it would accomplish is that people would stop talking about homeless people as some kind of big, amorphous class as a problem . . . and see people one face at a time,” Brown said. “Really, all this is is seeing people one face at a time.”

Alan Burt, co-founder of Homeless Not Hopeless, Inc., said that his first real, meaningful interaction with the homeless occurred 23 years ago when he was at the corner of North Street and Winter Street in Hyannis. There he saw a homeless man, “with a white beard, standing on the corner and he just smiled at me, winked and nodded his head.”

That brief interaction was enough to compel Burt to turn left – “I had never taken a left on Winter Street, very purposefully,” he said – and into the Salvation Army parking lot, a short walk from the NOAH Shelter.

And thus began a career in social services, helping those not unlike Mary Shepherd. Eventually, he helped launch Homeless Not Hopeless, Inc., a nonprofit that offers transitional living for those who are homeless.

But his organization, like HAC, does more than that, providing help for people at a time when they need it most. “Life is like skating,” Burt said. “Inevitably there are going to be slips and falls. Most people have a support system that helps pick them up, but not everybody gets that.”