Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo's new short offers an up-close look at how public buses help the homeless survive in one of America's wealthiest counties.
The 22 bus runs through wealthy Silicon Valley, from Palo Alto to San Jose. During the days and afternoons, it's packed with commuters headed to and from tech jobs. It is also one of the few 24-hour bus routes running through sprawling Santa Clara County, which is why by night it serves a very different function—as "Hotel 22."
With one of the longest routes in the area—a two-hour trip from end to end—the route is an improvised nighttime shelter for the area's homeless. For the price of a monthly bus pass, overnight riders can count on a relatively safe, rolling place to lay their heads. At the end of the line, they climb off, often carrying all of their worldly possessions in suitcases or duffels, and wait to board the next 22 bus going in the opposite direction. That's two more hours of shut-eye.
Many of Hotel 22's homeless passengers repeat this routine every night; some have for years. It's an alternative to the chaos of the overloaded shelter system. It's also far cheaper than renting a small apartment in one of the most expensive places in the country, allowing some to stretch their welfare checks far enough to cover food and medication instead.
Elizabeth Lo, a second-year MFA student in the Documentary Film and Video program at Stanford University, began riding the 22 home after late nights working on campus. "I started riding that bus because it's just outside the door of Stanford, basically," she says.
Over many rides, Lo earned the trust of some of the 22's riders and drivers. She saw the humanity in their simple desire to find a safe place to rest—herself an exhausted student—and listened to their stories of how they found themselves there. "A lot of people are regulars, and I started developing relationship with them," she says. She talked to the drivers and the passengers and said that she'd like to film their nightly journeys. "At first there was a lot of resistance to me being on the bus," she recalls. "But over time, I became just another character on this bus. Almost every night there would be resistance from a single person, and I would not film that person. But the people I did befriend would come to my defense."With the help of one classmate running sound, Lo filmed full nights on the bus over the course of a week. She edited that footage down to an 8-and-a-half-minute film called "Hotel 22," which made its North American premiere in December at the Sundance Film Festival—major exposure, she says, for an issue that people typically turn away from.
"I think there's a sense that homeless people deserve it, that they brought their situation upon themselves," she says. "But there were [homeless] people on the bus who went to work in the mornings and had just fallen on hard times. The term 'homeless' seems anonymous, like a faceless group at the bottom of society. It's easy to attack people who are vulnerable. There is a dehumanization that goes on when a class of people are as disempowered as the homeless."
Parts of the film are quiet; one particularly poignant image is of an old man's face as he sleeps, the lines in his skin a roadmap of his hard travels. At the same time, his expression is as relaxed and vulnerable as that of a slumbering infant.
"That's the power of the camera," Lo says. "It's about getting close to people and lingering on their faces, reading their micro-expressions. Thankfully, some of these people allowed me to get that close, which I am really grateful for."
Other parts feature startling explosions of sound: a verbal attack from a drunk late-night partier; a passenger respectfully but sternly demanding that the heat be turned on. "His name is Al Ambris," says Lo, "He's a veteran. Even though he's struggling, he's very vocal about standing up for his dignity and the dignity of his fellow riders, about not taking things silently."
The close quarters of the bus and Lo's tightly cropped shots have an immersive effect. For the short time the film runs, the viewer is on that bus. You feel the exhaustion, the tension, the unpredictability of the environment.
"I wanted viewers to feel like they were on the bus for a night—but just for a night," she says. "I don't think any film experience can convey the trial of what it's like to do that for many nights, or even years."
The film is now making the festival rounds—It will screen at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose from Feb. 24 through March 8, and at the True/False Film Festival from March 5 through 9—and Lo is preparing to embark on her graduate thesis, then hopefully a feature film. Both will likely deal with people on the margins of society.
"Film is so unique as a medium," she says. "It has a different kind of power than words do when you see something happening in front of you. There's a veracity in moving images that is a really powerful place to try to start dialog and shift people's consciousness—for a few minutes, if not more.