The Public Film

It is hard to believe a Hollywood elite got a movie about homelessness right.  Not only that, he managed to create a realistic movie about homelessness and libraries that is spot on AND hilarious!

The line of people armed with umbrellas waiting to enter Glide Memorial Church stretched beyond Ellis Street and around the corner down Taylor last Sunday. This crowd of hundreds of folks who waited in the rain were not there for a church service or baptism, but for a free screening of Emilio Estevez’ new film, “The Public.” This new movie about homelessness in Cincinnati shows how the local library responds to a cold spell which takes the lives of a handful of folks on the street. With topics of homelessness, death, substance abuse, and mental health, you would think the film was a Hollywood drama sensationalizing the homeless crisis, but Estevez handled the narrative with dignity and in a way which managed to have the whole congregation in laughter. After the film, Estevez joined a panel of community activists including our own Human Rights Organizer Kelley Cutler, library social worker Leah Esguerra, and homeless disabled firefighter, Couper Orana.

Without spoiling the movie, the homeless folk in Cincinnati, faced with no shelter beds in the winter, decide to take over and occupy the local library. What ensues is a strategic battle between the media, law enforcement, and homeless folk and allies in the library.

“The screening of The Public here in San Francisco was a hit!” Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer commented. “He captured the reality of the lack of resources for people forced to live on the street and the importance of the new role libraries play in our times.  But what surprised me most was that this movie captured the fact that the government’s response to a housing and health crisis is regularly law enforcement. That’s not Hollywood dramatics, it’s reality! He was somehow able to capture this reality, while at the same time making it hilarious!”

Although the fictional film took place in the Midwest and was produced over a year ago, the similarities to the current homeless crisis in San Francisco are striking. This March has reported the highest number yet on the shelter waitlist of over 1,400 single adults waiting to get into a 90 day bed, and most of these folks have been waiting for weeks or months to make it to the top of the list. While they continue to wait, the cold doesn’t stop. The rain doesn’t let up. February alone saw 17 rainy day of the 28 in the month and the city’s response was a mere additional 50 mats on the floor at MSC South. To make matters worse, when folks are waiting for hours in line for these mats, they’re not allowed to sit or lie down- it’s literally against the law. Their mere existence is against the law.

Three days before the screening of this movie, San Francisco Supervisors at the Public Safety & Neighborhood Services Committee heard presentations from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the Department of Emergency Management, Department of Public Works, and the Healthy Streets Operation Center about how they handle homelessness in extreme weather. Each department pointed fingers at one another when the time came to answer to the supervisors about vacant mats, shelter beds, sweeps, confiscation of property, and citing homeless people with 647e’s for illegal lodging. The treatment of homeless people year round, not just in inclement weather, is similar to how the movie portrayed.

During the cold, winter months, homeless folk across our country, not just in Cincinnati or San Francisco, are dying due to lack of resources. One scene in the movie depicts a librarian ally who informs his supervisor about the library take over and these four simple lines show the urgency and simplicity of the crisis:

Supervisor: What’s going on? Nobody is leaving.

Librarian: The patrons are staging an action.

Supervisor: What are they protesting?

Librarian: Freezing to death.

While we don’t have sub-zero temperatures in the bay, homeless folk die on the streets from the cold temperatures, persistent rain, biting wind, and exposure to the elements. The chronic illness homeless people face only exacerbates the health issues and contribute to lethal conditions.

It’s difficult to focus on the positive amid all the barriers and obstacles facing the homeless, especially when these barriers are perpetuated by the very government officials who are tasked with removing them. Where law enforcement and politicians failed in the movie “The Public,” it was the librarians and regular citizens who responded effectively in support of the homeless. We see similar failures by our own city government and law enforcement, but at Glide church, we saw a diverse crowd of supporters including District 6 Supervisor, Matt Haney, and the nation’s first Library Social Worker, Leah Esguerra, who works at the San Francisco Public Library. Esguerra describes her work, “I sit down with the person. That’s when being a clinical social worker comes in. I do the full clinical assessment, and then I make a presentation to my colleagues at the SF Homeless Outreach Team.” Esguerra sees over 5,000 library goers everyday and around 15% of them are homeless. Since 2009 when Esguerra started, the library social worker model has taken off and has been implemented sporadically throughout the country.

“That movie was right on and it was very, very real. There was a lot of overlap from the movie to what happens here. The cops push us to different parts of the city, they degrade us,” formerly homeless woman Kotton Kandie said. “This film makes me want to occupy City Hall and get on Mayor London Breed’s case. I think the homeless should take over this library until something is done!”

Kotton Kandie’s sentiment is shared by many homeless folks in San Francisco who have been churned in and out of the shelter system from being on the streets, to shelters, to mats on the floor, and back to the streets again.

“We are all if not already just one or a few moments/circumstances away from becoming homeless, and it’s not just here, this country is fucked and we need to realize that,” SF resident Mary Howe stated. “We need to start a new dialogue, this is about US not THEM, we are all human beings and we should be treating each other as such. We cannot police ourselves out of poverty it just at best, makes people’s lives worse and at worst, leaves us dead.”

It’s clear “The Public” was well received by community members of all walks of life and stayed true to the realities of homelessness. During the panel, Estevez said he put on a hoodie and walked around the streets and libraries talking to people, gathering their stories, and synthesizing them to create “The Public.”

In the words of former San Francisco Homeless Czar, Bevan Dufty “every government official should see this film.”

For those of you who were not lucky enough to have a free screening with the director himself, “The Public” is set to release April 5, 2019.