By Phil Hall | March 21, 2010

Allie Light and Irving Saraf directed this harrowing examination of the tenants of the Empress Hotel, a 90-room facility operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health to provide housing to the homeless.

It appears that many of the hotel’s tenants have long and tortured histories that they’re too willing to share with agonizing depth. Some of the stories are textbook cases of self-abuse taken to extremes, most tragically a one-time crack addict who cannot get above 84 pounds despite her binge eating.  Other stories are more complicated, particularly the case of a middle-aged woman with two master’s degrees who wound up sleeping on sidewalks when her academic career fell apart and no one was willing to provide her with temporary shelter.

There are also too many stories where poor souls literally fall through the cracks in the system, particularly involving tenants who fight against mental illness (and, frequently, the doctors that repeatedly misdiagnose their cases).

“Empress Hotel” may run a conflict of interest risk by having Roberta Goodman, the facility’s building manager, listed as the film’s co-producer – it may not be coincidental that there is very little criticism of the Empress Hotel and its staff in this film, nor is there any explicit criticism of how San Francisco’s municipal government addresses the issue of homelessness (the city’s track record in addressing this concern is far from exemplary). Nonetheless, the film deserves credit for giving attention to a demographic that the political establishment, the mainstream media and the general public would just as soon ignore.

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