Inspired by his father, who was homeless for a time as a teenager, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield tried to raise the hopes of a group of homeless people by taking them to see a new movie that tells a rags-to-riches story.
"The Pursuit of Happyness," a movie starring Will Smith as a man who gets evicted along with his young son and becomes homeless for a while, is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, now a millionaire business executive.
"This is not going to drastically change anyone's life," the mayor acknowledged as about 15 homeless movie guests were given large soft drinks and buckets of popcorn, concessions provided by an anonymous donor.
But he said his aides came up with the movie idea as a "good way to illustrate that homelessness is not permanent."
Critics call it patronizing that the mayor is counting on a movie to inspire Chattanooga's homeless, many of whom are mentally ill and have substance-abuse problems, but the film's real-life subject hopes it does exactly that.
Gardner told the Associated Press in a statement that he wants the Chattanooga group to "take one thing away from those two hours: Chris Gardner isn't doing anything I can't do."
"This movie, and my story, is really the story of all the people out there who don't quit on their dreams for a better life and don't give up on their children," he said.
Littlefield arranged for a city bus to pick up the moviegoers and take them to the downtown theater. The bus system paid for the $6 movie tickets.
Several people left the theater crying and wiping away tears. Tammy "Blondy" Ledford, 32, who has been homeless for nearly eight years, said the movie reminded her of her own life.
"It was sad," she said. "I remembered how it was whenever me and my three kids got thrown out of my apartment. ... Everybody ought to come watch this movie, especially all the homeless people."
Lou Dandoy, 46, who said he has been homeless for only a few weeks, called it "one hell of a good movie.... It inspires me to go back to school and get off the streets."
The moviegoers, who volunteered at several agencies that deal with the homeless to see the film, also watched a short video on the mayor's proposal to build a campus for the homeless that consolidates public services in one spot. Littlefield this year got the city to buy a piece of land for $775,000 to develop the project.
Similar campuses have been started in some other cities, including Seattle; Phoenix; and South Bend, Ind.
Littlefield says his concern for the homeless was inspired by his father, who left home during the Great Depression to ride the rails because his family couldn't feed all seven children.
Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, agrees with the mayor's push to consolidate homeless services, but he doubts a movie can encourage people to work themselves out of poverty.
"Homeless people already know what it is like to be homeless," Stoops said. "They don't need an uplifting story."
Merri Mai Williamson, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Real Homeless Solutions in Chattanooga, a group that opposes the mayor's proposed homeless campus, described the movie outing as "manipulation at its finest," designed to build public support for the project.
But Kimberly Kyriakidis George, a spokeswoman for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Salvation Army chapter, described the movie outing as a nice escape from reality.
"All of us enjoy entertainment. It helps us escape a little bit of our own reality," she said.