Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle
Francisco Martinez likes to read. The Bible, usually. And he likes to ditch his tent a few hours a day for somewhere inside, where it’s warm and out of the rain, the people are nice and he can snatch a nap in a chair.
There’s one place that fills the bill for a homeless guy like Martinez, who at 78 moves more like someone who’s 88.
“I’ve got nowhere else but here,” he said the other day as he settled into a window chair in San Francisco’s Main Library with a Bible study book from a nearby rack on his lap, a knapsack on the floor next to him.
His weather-beaten face showed decades of hard wear. But he was neat. Quiet.
“I don’t like shelters, so this is the place I come to,” he said. “I can mind my business, stay out of trouble, and they treat me decently.”
He’s got a lot of company — in the burgeoning number of homeless folks who have discovered welcome mats at public libraries all over America. And now, there’s a Hollywood movie coming out about them.
“The Public,” set for national release on April 5, is a fictional drama about a group of homeless men who take over the Cincinnati Main Library one winter night to avoid freezing to death. And though it’s got the usual Tinseltown flashes of romance, a standoff with the cops, and a powerhouse cast — Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling and Emilio Estevez — it achieves a rarity in films about the homeless. It captures reality.
Credit this to Estevez, the 56-year-old director, writer and star of the movie. A longtime social activist like his father, actor Martin Sheen, Estevez did his homework on the street with homeless people. His project was 12 years in the making, and it shows in the way he captures the reality of what goes on in the typical library when homeless people use it.
The proof is in the nuances: The way the homeless shave and wash up in the bathroom, the calm way the librarians handle a crazy guy talking about lasers beaming from his eyes, the pure exhaustion on the faces of men taking refuge. Most telling is Estevez’s portrayal of street people as rough individuals who manage to maintain their senses of humor and decency. The movie depicts them as they are, without exaggeration.
Estevez began his research after reading a 2007 essay by Chip Ward, a now-retired Salt Lake City librarian, about the surprising numbers of homeless people using libraries as asylums. But the core of the director’s research was on the sidewalks in Los Angeles, where the 2,000-soul Skid Row is the biggest homeless sprawl in the nation.
“I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen,” Estevez told The Chronicle this week as he prepared to head to San Francisco for a preview screening of his film on Sunday at Glide Memorial Church. “Just by listening to the stories and allowing the people I talked to freely express themselves, I learned quite a lot. It’s a fine line between being vulturistic and being a researcher.”
The point of the film, Estevez said, is not to just entertain people, but to raise awareness of the new role libraries fill for homeless people. A strain of civil disobedience runs through the film, an echo of the social activism Estevez witnessed in his father, who has been arrested 68 times at protests, several in the Bay Area.
“I thought it was important to create a conversation and shine a light on the unsung heroes — the librarians — and on the problem of people who are experiencing homelessness,” Estevez said. “If we don’t have the conversation about homelessness, which is a crisis, we’re never going to solve it.”
To that end, he’s been spending the past month previewing the movie and holding public discussions in cities across the West, mostly in libraries, and will visit 30 communities by the time the movie opens. He’s coming to San Francisco at the invitation of Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness here who approached him after a screening in Palm Springs.
“Homeless movies usually don’t do well, but this one is different,” Cutler said. “It’s really on point, really about what’s going on. And Emilio is so sweet, down to earth — he actually sees the relevance, the reality. So I thought he just absolutely had to show it here in San Francisco.”
The original plan was to show the movie at the Main Library, but it immediately became clear after the coalition advertised the showing that the venue with a capacity for 200 people wouldn’t do. The event was moved to Glide, and the 800 tickets — all free — were quickly snapped up. Cutler will be on a panel with Estevez talking about homelessness after the showing.
Librarians began noticing about 15 years ago that homeless people were coming in in increasing numbers to use the internet, wash up, take naps — and, as much as anything, simply read and have some quiet time. Just like anyone else. After all, as city homelessness Director Jeff Kositsky said, “It is a public place, and unhoused people have every right to use it as housed people do.”
In San Francisco, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of homeless people like Martinez come to the libraries daily. Around the Bay Area, that number runs into the thousands.
This can be a problem, when someone who’s mentally ill rants in the aisles or addicts shoot up in the bathroom. But many libraries around the nation have learned to keep those issues to a minimum — thanks largely to a pioneering program in San Francisco that stationed a social worker on-site to help the desperate, instead of just keeping a lid on them with police interventions.
The social worker, Leah Esguerra, was posted to the Main Library 10 years ago after complaints by other patrons about homeless behavior. The idea behind Esguerra’s experiment was that instead of rousting the people out, a professional counselor could get them help for housing, shelter or rehab, or just chill out the atmosphere, help everyone fit in together.
It has been so successful that 30 other libraries in the nation are replicating a form of Esguerra’s program. She now has six assistants — formerly homeless people, trained to help — and her team has helped house 200 people and routed hundreds of others into shelter and services. Esguerra, who works for Kositsky’s office, will also be on Sunday’s panel with Cutler and Estevez.
“What we do works because people are already here in the library,” she said. “Why not access them where they’re at?
“It’s warm, it’s a sanctuary. There’s a sense of stability here. We see those experiencing homelessness as people. We don’t ‘other’ them. We know they’re experiencing trauma, and if we approach them like that, most of the time they appreciate it.
“It’s been a real culture shift.”
The library system in Anchorage, Alaska, is in the sixth month of its social work program, using San Francisco’s model. After connecting hundreds of homeless people with shelter, counseling and other services, it’s being expanded to other branches.
“I do think it’s making a big difference,” said Anchorage social worker Rebecca Barker, who has two support workers and is training the librarians on how to better handle street people who come through the doors. “We de-escalate things. And really, what I find homeless people here want most is jobs and housing — not trouble. I have to say, it’s really nice having the wisdom of Leah (Esguerra) to depend on.”
In San Francisco, librarian Shawana Sherman said the social work program has made a big difference. Adjustments have to be made now and then — after a surge of complaints in 2014, the library tightened up its conduct rules and that calmed things down again — and that’s a positively evolving thing, she said.
“Having Leah and her team here makes me feel supported,” Sherman said while staffing the checkout desk one day. “We get trauma training, which helps. Instead of just thinking, ‘Oh, this person is homeless and a problem,’ you think about what’s going on behind the behaviors you see. And that helps you react helpfully, not just trying to figure it out as you go.”
The kindness-over-enforcement approach works OK for Martinez, who mostly wants to be left alone. But for Phillip Torres, 35, it’s been a life changer.
“Before those social workers were here, it was just a free-for-all in the library — sex and doping in the bathroom stalls all the time, fights, everything,” said Torres, who’s been homeless much of his life and strolled into the Main Library the other day to recharge his phone and peruse the book stacks. “Now? It’s cool.”
He’s sleeping in a tent in the Tenderloin, but a year ago, Esguerra’s team helped him get housing. He was evicted six months ago — “relationship problems,” he said — but is working with the team to get back inside.
“Those guys are good,” he said. “They didn’t give up on me. It’s nice that they actually care that much.”