The Empress Hotel is home to a rarified clientele - ninety people with metalillness or addiction who have lived on the streets of San Francisco. Not every person can stay on meds or get clean, yet out of hopelessness and chaos, a community is formed. The tenants and those who serve them understand the depth of addiction and the difficulty in giving it up.
WARNING: Contains explicit language and some scenes not suitable for younger audiences.
"The people of the Empress Hotel have struggled through some of the most agonizing challenges imaginable – chronic homelessness, physical disability, poverty or mental illness – and by living in this setting they have been able to find new life. They find support for moving forward, for tapping their inner potential, fighting their inner demons. They find dignity, and they find that most precious, and too often taken for granted, gift: Stability. These things are much harder to attain than most people can imagine. For some, merely having a roof rather than a spot on the sidewalk is an enormous accomplishment. For others, the hotel and its support services, both medical and social, offer a launching pad to independence. This movie, Empress Hotel, gives you an absolutely unvarnished front row seat into the everyday lives of the people who live there, and into the everyday efforts of the hotel’s staff to keep them housed, safe and working – always working – toward improving their quality of life. National statistics show that 30 percent of homeless people overall struggle with mental illness, but among the chronically homeless the figure is much higher. The vast majority of the chronically homeless also struggle with some form of substance use. The health ravages from sleeping outside are horrific. Those who come to the Empress Hotel, like hundreds of thousands of other chronically homeless people in America, have struggled with this mix of challenges. And for most, the Empress is the best thing that’s come into their lives for many years. That’s not to say their lives always become easy. But they become better. It’s long been said that a society can be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable citizens. In America, the chronically homeless are our most vulnerable. The Empress is “a make-sense model” of how we as a society can treat our most vulnerable. To really solve this poverty issues of chronic homelessness in our country, we need to structurally re-prioritize what we do with our resources – to pay as much attention to homelessness as we do to resurfacing roads, providing education and health care, and any of the other basic needs necessary to create a sound society. Homelessness is a problem that will not go away. Let the Empress be an example of how we can find our moral compass."
— ROBERTA GOODMAN
Empress Hotel (2009)
Duration: 85 minutes
Directed by Allie Light and Irving Saraf
Produced by Allie Light, Irving Saraf and Roberta Goodman
*Discussion Guide available for download.
- OFFICIAL SELECTION: Nashville Film Festival 2009
- OFFICIAL SELECTION: San Francisco International Film Festival 2009
- OFFICIAL SELECTION: Saladearte International Film Festival, Salvador Brazil 2009
"For those of us staring daily at the underbelly of the US health care system and the consequences of failed housing policy, Empress Hotel is an empowering experience. The film drives home the understanding that "housing IS health care" and demonstrates the tremendous effectiveness of "housing first" and "harm reduction" interventions. Though captured in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, the film is as much about homelessness in Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, New York, Denver, and other cities. The Empress represents a compelling way to end the homelessness of exceedingly vulnerable individuals who often have been rejected from other service modalities. Whether you know a lot about homelessness or only a little, see this film. "
— Kevin Lindamood, VICE PRESIDENT, EXTERNAL AFFAIRS HEALTH CARE FOR THE HOMELESS, INC.
“As an AmeriCorps Member at a nearby health clinic, I work with many of the Empress Hotel residents. Seeing the movie reconfirmed in explicit detail what I already knew to be true about our patients: Every one has a unique reason for being here, and everyone is deeply worthy of respect. This movie helps to dispel misconceptions about homelessness by demonstrating that people without a home are no different from you and me. Access to a permanent, safe home is a human right, and supportive housing is a vital service.”
— Ariela M. Zamcheck, AMERICORPS MEMBER
“Empress Hotel provides a vivid and poignant look into the everyday world of residents of a permanent supportive housing program in San Francisco. It is a close look at what “home” means to people whom many would say cannot be housed and the supports that are critical to stabilizing the lives of a very vulnerable group of individuals. The film’s moving and sensitive portrayal of the realities of permanent supportive housing speaks to people who believe that homelessness must – and can – be ended.”
— Nan Roman, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NATIONAL ALLIANCE TO END HOMELESSNESS
“Through this film, Empress Hotel, the City of San Francisco has an opportunity to share our efforts at challenging homelessness. This creative team displays our unique supportive housing model that humanely illustrates the lives of formerly homeless people as they transition into permanent housing. I am proud of this work and know that the people that you will meet in the film will inspire you to continue to find solutions to homelessness in your community.”
— Gavin Newsom, MAYOR, CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO
“This is one of the most unflinching, sensitively done portrayals you’ll ever see of what life is truly like inside a supportive housing complex in America. The success the Empress Hotel has had in helping some of the most vulnerable homeless people in San Francisco stabilize their lives is little short of astonishing, and nothing short of inspiring – go see this film!”
— Kevin Fagan, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE REPORTER & RECIPIENT OF THE 2005 NATIONAL JAMES ARONSON AWARD FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE JOURNALISM
“Empress Hotel offers an insightful illustration of supportive housing as a means to end homelessness for many who are often discounted. This documentary goes beyond the rhetoric to illuminate the impact having a place to call home can have on an individual. Its realistic portrayal of the many issues the residents of the Empress are confronted with emphasizes the need for housing with necessary services to end the cycle of homelessness.”
— Deb De Santis, PRESIDENT, CORPORATION FOR SUPPORTIVE HOUSING
“The outcome of poverty manifests daily challenges for individuals beyond human understanding. One in eight Americans are hungry; many of them are homeless. We cannot hide this crushing reality and the burden placed upon the human spirit. We need more artistic endeavors, like Empress Hotel, where the truth about our poverty issues are fully embraced and the message moves us to action.”
— Catherine D'Amato, CEO AND PRESIDENT, GREATER BOSTON FOOD BANK, BOSTON, MA
“As a resident of New York City, I have been confronted with the problems of our homeless citizens. This extraordinary film showcases San Francisco’s response to a seemingly intractable issue by providing a supportive housing model that truly offers hope to us all. As a lifelong entertainer and activist, I understand how important art is to social justice. This documentary is important.”
— Harry Belafonte, ARTIST AND SOCIAL ACTIVIST
“Empress Hotel introduces us to the lives and hearts of those who have lived on the streets of America. The film captures their struggles, and makes them our struggles. As a Community Economic Development attorney and professor, this film gave me the opportunity to host a conversation with activists beyond my day-to-day networks. As homelessness grows, destabilizing families and the communities in which my clients live and work, this broader coalition is critical to community stabilization. Empress Hotel provided a platform for a larger and more strategic conversation about Baltimore’s development. It is a gift.”
— Brenda Bratton Blom, J.D., Ph.D., DIRECTOR, CLINICAL LAW PROGRAM UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND SCHOOL OF LAW
“Empress Hotel is a gritty and outstanding documentary about life inside a supportive housing site that provides permanent housing to the homeless, including persons with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. It is as realistic and compelling of a portrayal as you will ever see. It is a tremendous documentary.”
— Pete Earley, AUTHOR OF CRAZY: A FATHER'S SEARCH THROUGH AMERICA'S MENTAL HEALTH MADNESS
“A documentary, which brings to a wider public, the important messages which are so elegantly expressed through the work of the Empress Hotel could have a very substantial impact on the problem of homelessness throughout the world.”
— PRINCE CHARLES, after visiting and meeting with Empress residents