Fresh off its gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this week, “the public,” the Cincinnati-shot drama written, directed and starring Emilio Estevez, was screened Tuesday night for supporters and staff of the Toronto Public Library Foundation at the downtown library branch.
The film follows a group of homeless men who refuse to leave the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County during an especially brutal cold spell, and how the library staff, police and public officials handle the issues of homelessness, mental health and community responsibility.
More than 400 guests attended the screening, which opened with a discussion about not just the movie, but libraries’ roles regarding the issue of homelessness, led by Estevez and Ryan Dowd, the author of “The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.”
Estevez told the audience that an article more than a decade ago in the Los Angeles Times about the homeless in L.A. public libraries inspired him to make this movie. “The article was about how libraries have become de facto homeless shelters and how librarians have become first responders.”
The issue is not a new one for the Toronto Public Library: It is one of the world's busiest urban public library systems, with 100 branches across the city and over 10 million books, movies, and other items to borrow. In the area the library system serves, it’s estimated that some 5,000 people are chronically homeless in the city, but more than 600,000 are designated as low income and dip in and out of homelessness periodically.
To serve those without homes or shelter, the library put several initiatives in place: Toronto library branches are designated warming and cooling centers during extreme weather conditions. The Toronto bookmobile visits family shelters and offers children’s storytimes, and the library recently hired a full-time social worker to provide system-wide support for the homeless other members of the city’s underserved population.
Dowd, who is the executive director of a Chicago-area homeless shelter, said librarians have had to learn these social service skills on the fly. “All these issues, big social issues that libraries and librarians have to address, they’re not equipped for it. They don’t teach that stuff in library school. Like, how to use Narcan to revive people from opioid addiction and how to treat mental illness and oh, by the way, you also take care of the books and computers and run the programs.
“Let’s do something,” Dowd continued. “Volunteer. Donate. Call your legislator, write your legislator. Do something. We don’t all have to save 100 percent of the world today, but we’ve got to do something.”
An earlier Estevez film, “The Way,” about a father’s pilgrimage to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, is credited with inspiring tens of thousands of tourists to take the same trip and, as a result, boost the tourism economy of that area. Estevez said he hopes “the public” can trigger a similar call to action. “I would be thrilled if there could be some part of that, that translates to this film, to inspire people to look at homelessness, to look at mental illness, to look at libraries and participate.”
“the public” has one final showing at TIFF on Friday, September 14. Watch the trailer at https://www.tiff.net/tiff/the-public/