Pure Emotion: The Story of the Empress Hotel in San Francisco
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The Empress Hotel is both a documentary film and place to live for people who are in transition from homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Roberta Goodman, the General Manager of the Empress Hotel, co-produced this moving documentary with Academy Award winning filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf. It shows the harsh realities and moments of hope faced by people who have experienced chronic homelessness.
“The last time I lived in a house it was 1971,” explains Catherine as she settles into her car to eat and pull her jacket over her face to sleep. It is dark outside and traffic passes. The sounds of the city intersect with the stillness of one woman’s silence in homelessness.
Produced by Allie Light, Irving Saraf, and Roberta Goodman, this image is one of many in the documentary film, The Empress Hotel. Roberta Goodman is the General Manager of the Empress Hotel residence and appears in the film frequently. She is a critical link to the ninety people that comprise this emotional landscape of loss, addiction, mental illness, violence, and the slow, sometimes halting movement towards hope. The film opens with crooning from Bessie Smith who sings, “It can rain all day, I ain’t got no place to stay.” It is both tender and raw in its portrayal of people living on the precipice between worlds.
The Empress Hotel is a brownstone building with character. It is located in the Tenderloin section of downtown San Francisco. The lobby of the building has been renovated to reflect a welcoming environment. It has contemporary lighting, high ceilings, and glass windows that offer transparency between the interior of the building and the street outside. Funded by The San Francisco Department of Health, the Empress Hotel provides housing and supportive services to its residents.
The documentary Empress Hotel uncovers truth in storytelling. The true face of chronic homelessness is both elusive and striking. Sonya is agitated in her movements and speech at the same time that she is eager to share her memories with the camera. We follow her into neighborhoods where she used to sell crack, on the bus, to the doctor, and to her room where she cooks chicken. “My mother died and I had nobody to turn to, so I turned to crack.” Sonya is comforted by having a space of her own. “I love this room. It’s a nice room. I keep it clean. I go shopping.” She calls Roberta Goodman “Mama” and tells the camera that Roberta is going to make this place better.
John recalls living in a shelter and spinning on crystal meth. He is smiling in the lobby of the Empress and explains that his caseworker referred him here. “This has been a really good place for me to get my life together.” He speaks with levity about the colorful characters who have become his friends in this building.
The filmmakers are unsparing in their exposure of everything that happens at the Empress Hotel and on the street outside. Long shots of people sleeping under blankets on the sidewalk serve as a reminder that the Empress Hotel does not house everyone in the neighborhood. A man who has just been beaten up stands outside the hotel in the harsh glare of daylight as a fire truck careens by. “They will beat you up down here,” he says. There are no secrets in this film. Tina is outraged by her living situation in one moment and grateful the next. “I have been saving my money to get the heck out of here. This is as bad as it gets. It is like an insane asylum.”
Like life, the pace of the film changes in a moment. Lynn is soft spoken and moves gently as she tells the story of an active academic life, a graduate degree from M.I.T. and a keen interest in holograms. “I specialized in something and it went away. It is just like a bird that specializes in a certain seed and the seed goes away. Nobody buys holograms. So I became homeless. Homelessness - if you weren’t mentally ill when you got there, you are going to be.” Lynn talks about the loneliness of homelessness. She used to pan handle in search of a response or some kindness.
Another resident, Paul, shares the story of his own unwinding from financial success and a thought disorder that he describes with clarity as being, “like a man being taken out to execution.” While he eventually leaves the safety of the Empress Hotel, there are other residents who stay and rebuild their lives from the chaos of mental illness and addiction to independence and employment.
Renee, a former music teacher who struggles with bipolar disorder and spent seven months in jail for setting her own car on fire, talks about the Empress as a haven for stability. “Here I have a clean environment and I don’t have to hear about what I am, or what I’m not. I can plan my next step to do what I want to do.” At the end of the film she is seen packing her belongings to move to her own apartment. As one person leaves, another arrives through the glass doors of this renovated brownstone. Welcome to the Empress Hotel.
“This place is not intellectual,” explains Roberta. “This place is pure emotion. These folks who live here aspire to do things that anyone else would want, a better life. They are in my life and I am in theirs and sometimes it is good, and sometimes it is not so good.”
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