Dir. Thomas Southerland, USA, 2021, 69 min.

Screening virtually and at Bailey Park on Friday, May 14 @ 8:30 p.m. Learn more here.

Everything they own has to fit into one black trash bag and a plastic bin.

At the Bethesda Center for the Homeless in Winston-Salem, no one person’s story is the same. Some found their way to the shelter after being kicked out by family members. Others struggled with substance abuse. Some were fired and didn’t have the savings to keep paying for their own place. The list goes on and on. In the course of about 70 minutes, Bethesda: A Shelter’s Story, highlights the lives of dozens of unhoused individuals who have sought refuge at the shelter. Examples include a woman named Tammy — all of the individuals interviewed go by first names only — who had been living at Bethesda for five months before her case managers helped her secure her own apartment.

“Once you have a house of your own, there’s nothing more satisfying and more gratifying,” she says in an interview at the shelter. Four months later, the filmmakers catch up with her in her new apartment.

“I cried so much that day they brought me here,” she says as she looks around her new place. “To just step over that threshold and step into the house itself, even though we didn’t have anything to begin with, it was just the most amazing, incredible feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

She explains how she had been working as a chef for years after graduating from cooking school when she was in a car accident in 2014 that broke her neck in six places. Now, it’s hard for her to lift heavy objects, but she says her dream is to own a restaurant or a food truck someday.

In addition to extremely candid, personal interviews with the residents and graduates of the shelter, the film takes a look at the inner workings of Bethesda, too. While it operates as a day and night shelter for the homeless, the filmmakers show the labor that goes on behind the scenes by the shelter staff to help the residents succeed. Examples include helping individuals get ID cards, acquire free furniture for their apartments and referrals for drug treatment programs.

“If anybody says that Bethesda Center didn’t help them, it’s because they didn’t help themselves,” says one resident.

Through interviews and glimpses into the residents’ lives, the film humanizes and empathizes deeply with a population that is so often erased and victimized by society. They show the heroes of the story who range from the residents themselves to the staff and volunteers that act as the cheerleaders for people going through some of the toughest parts of their lives. The title reflects the name of the shelter, but in reality, the film is a story about people.

“At the end of the day, most people in the homeless community just want you to see them as human,” says one resident. “Not for their brokenness.”

Find our full guide to RiverRun 2021 here.

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