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A Gripping View of Life in San Francisco’s SROs

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a young Chinese American girl in pink clothes and her mother, a Chinese woman, in a crowded room
Christina and her daughter Shirley in a still from 'Home Is a Hotel,' in their room at an SRO hotel in Chinatown. (Courtesy of Home Is a Hotel)

“Before coming here from China, I thought that American homes were large, beautiful and luxurious, from the television,” says Christina, a mother who’s newly single after leaving her abusive husband.

She’s crouched on the floor, helping her young daughter get dressed for the day inside their single-room home in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In the 80-square-foot room, piles of folded clothes crowd against a mattress, jammed next to a shelf stacked with toys, boxes, a cooking pot. The bathroom is shared, down the hall.

“Had I known the living conditions here,” she says in Cantonese, “I wouldn’t have decided to come to the U.S.”

Christina and her daughter are just two of the more than 20,000 people who currently live in San Francisco’s single-room occupancy hotels, commonly referred to as SROs. Theirs is one of five households at the heart of Home Is a Hotel, a poignant, powerful documentary about SRO residents from Bay Area filmmaker Kevin Duncan Wong, with co-directors/producers Kar Yin Tham and Todd Sills. Following the film’s premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival — where it won both the juried Documentary Feature Award and the Audience Award — it makes its non-festival debut at the Roxie Theater on Aug. 17. A second screening at the Roxie is scheduled for Aug. 28.

a Black woman with braids combs her toddler son's hair
Jacque and her son Zallah at home. (Courtesy of 'Home Is a Hotel')

Shot in and around its subjects’ living spaces in Chinatown, the Mission and the Tenderloin, the character-driven documentary is predicated on a deep, obvious trust between the filmmakers and their housing-insecure subjects. That’s the result, says Wong, of shooting over more than five years.

“Part of the challenge, the reason a film like this is hard to make, is it really does require that you spend years getting to know folks and them getting to know you,” says Wong. “You can’t make this kind of film if you’re just parachuting in.”

While the viewer gets a basic history of SROs in San Francisco via title cards — they were first introduced here in the ’80s, intended as a temporary way to get people off the street while their names sat on affordable housing waitlists — the filmmakers otherwise let the documentary’s subjects narrate their own stories. Which is smart, because the people in Home Is a Hotel are compelling, complicated, endearing, tragic, funny and relatable, despite having been dealt some incredibly rough hands.

three white people sit on the floor of a small room with a dog
Sunbear and Amy with their son Marley inside their SRO. (Courtesy of 'Home Is a Hotel')

There’s Jacque, who’s balancing a job and raising a toddler son while searching the city for her older daughter, a teenager who has run away from her foster home. Sylvester, a soft-spoken painter with PTSD, is under house arrest as he awaits a trial for killing a neighbor in self-defense. Esther is an elderly, blind librettist who’s facing eviction. Sunbear and Amy, a former couple in recovery, are trying to do right by their 6-year-old while staying sober, and dealing with a microwave so riddled with cockroaches it’s unusable — not to mention sharing an 80-square-foot home with an ex.

“In some ways the entire purpose of the film is about being able to cut through certain things and really reach people at an emotional level,” says Tham, of the filmmakers’ light touch. The severe lack of affordable housing isn’t a political talking point here; it’s the reason a kid is going to school with bedbug bites on his arms.

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In between these intimate, often painful stories, tenderly framed shots of San Francisco provide a moment for the viewer to take a breath — as well as commentary on the staggering inequality that’s come to characterize the city over the last decade. “I really wanted the film to feel like what it feels like to be in San Francisco,” says Wong.

That means showing both the beauty and the blight: The city skyline glowing under golden hour sunlight. People dining inside a high-end restaurant while others sleep on the sidewalk outside. Jacque, who is Black, walking the neighborhood with “missing” signs for her daughter, whom she believes is with a child abuser and drug dealer, and noting that “the police don’t seem to give a shit.” Moments later, news blares from a bar TV, reporting that the reward for a missing white woman at the University of Iowa has climbed to $172,000.

By the film’s end — again, the narratives span five years — some of the subjects have finally gotten off the Section 8 housing waitlist and into their own homes, modest spaces that feel palatial and triumphant to the viewer after even an hour of watching scenes in SROs. Other subjects are more or less right where we left them. And everyone’s lives have been permanently altered by the pandemic.

four people on a stage at a film festival in front of a packed theater
Filmmakers Kevin Duncan Wong, Kar Yin Tham and Todd Sills spoke with Rod Armstrong, SFFILM’s associate director of programming, at the film festival in April. ‘Home Is a Hotel’ won both the Documentary Feature Award and the Audience Award. (Tommy Lau, courtesy of SFFILM)

They have also been altered in a positive way, the filmmakers hope, by participating in the documentary. Most of the subjects attended the SFFILM premiere in April, and they seemed “touched, and shocked in a good way” by the rapturous applause, says Wong.

“Part of the point [of the film] is that this is a population that isn’t listened to very often,” says the director. “So that was probably the most meaningful thing for us, was them being able to feel the audience response, and see how people were responding to their stories.”

“It actually gave me more optimism around San Francisco and where we’re headed,” adds Tham. “Because it felt like people really got it, and maybe they left thinking ‘We can do better.’ We can be a different kind of city, you know?”

Home Is a Hotel screens at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 17 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. The filmmakers and some documentary participants will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. A second screening is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 28. Tickets and more info here.

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