Paul Bettany maintains that his directorial debut, “Shelter,” isn’t about homelessness but about judgment. It follows two characters who’ve done unspeakable things: Hannah (Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s wife) is a junkie who’s abandoned her children; Tahir (Anthony Mackie) is a former member of Boko Haram. They’ve wound up on New York’s streets, in love and trying to get by and maybe escape to a normal life. Still, Bettany can’t help but talk about the homelessness epidemic in the city he’s lived in for 15 years, even as he knows that a rich actor — presently Jarvis/Vision in the Marvel movies — making a film about the poor opens him up to certain criticisms.
Even the most empathetic liberal tends to at least sometimes ignore homeless people on the streets of New York. It's a problem that we handle so poorly it's surreal.
There’s just not a bit of it that is acceptable, right? 60,000 — amazing to think of this in a city that just sold an apartment for $100 billion — 60,000 homeless people seek shelter in the municipal shelter system every night. 24,000 of them are children. 19,000 are women. Half of the homeless population is families. And then there are those who fall by the wayside. There’s been a 32 percent slash in public housing over the last 10 years. Wages are staying the same, rents are going up, people are not able to make ends meet. Then there’s people who lose a family member, mental illness and drug addiction.
I’ve been living with this, bleeding with it for three years. I’ve got all the figures in my head. I can talk to you about how there is no right to legal council in housing calls in New York. A family facing eviction is 80 percent less likely to be evicted if they have legal council. Legal council will cost the city $12,500 a year. The average cost of a family once they have become homeless and are in the shelter system is $45,000. It makes moral and fiscal sense to provide legal council. I’ve got all these figures in my head, but they’re numbing for people. The strange thing about narrative is that numbers become more meaningful the smaller they get. That is why “Shelter” is about two people.
Movies are great at reduction and at creating, even manipulating empathy.
They’re great at humanizing, which is a f—ing incredible thought that it needs to be done. They are humans. I think the response [against worrying about it] is out of fear. “You’ve got have brought yourself to this point, which I wouldn’t do. You made a mistake I wouldn’t make, because that means I could be you.” It’s a really puzzling response to another human being.