What's at stake:

Fresno's Tower Theatre hosts two screenings of a years-in-the-making documentary highlighting the lives of residents in Fresno's Motel Drive strip.

Most Fresnans would be comfortable with acknowledging that the city is going through an incredibly difficult housing crisis. But how many of those same people would feel comfortable in facing the very real consequences brought on by this issue?

A recent film screening at the Tower Theatre drew hundreds of people who were willing to face that very reality.

Live Again Fresno and Pigeon Vision Productions hosted screenings of the documentary “Motel Drive” at the Tower Theatre on Thursday evening. 

Pigeons’ Brendan Geraghty wrote, produced and directed the documentary. A native of Southern California, Geraghty was drawn to the Central Valley after seeing a Vice News article in 2014 showing the poor living conditions at Motel Drive. He realized that the conditions in Fresno weren’t so different from those he saw back home.

“I grew up in L.A. where there’s a lot of the same issues that are in the film…addiction, unhoused folks,” Geraghty said. “[In] Fresno, you’ve got north Fresno — wealthy, central Fresno — that struggles with a lot of poverty and housing issues. L.A. is similar. You got Beverly Hills [and] you’ve got Skid Row. It’s a different city with a lot of these issues that I’ve grown up with and that are very familiar to me.”

Although the initial plans for Thursday’s event were to show a single screening of the documentary, a second show was added by popular demand. The 761-person capacity theater sold out of its first screening, with the second almost selling out, too. 

The documentary follows the lives of the Shaw family from 2014 to 2022, who are forced to put up with constant uprooting, drug addiction and poor living conditions while living in and out of Fresno’s Motel Drive — a strip of rundown hotels and inns that runs along Highway 99 on Parkway Drive and Golden State Boulevard near downtown.

Jason Shaw and Deandra Brewer live with their son Justin in the hotels on the strip. The family’s lives are seemingly entrenched in the hotels, as Shaw works as a hotel handyman and Brewer works as a hotel housekeeper. It’s not until the California High-Speed Rail Authority offered them money to move out that the Shaw’s lives truly begin to change.

Geraghty also acknowledged that the subject of homelessness was personal to him. Through his family, he was able to witness the effects that come with it.

“Homelessness is something I grew up with…it’s a very visual thing but it’s also something that is very personal,” Geraghty said. “I have family members who have struggled with a lot of issues in the film, whether it’s being in and out of housing, struggling with addiction…”

Live Again Fresno is a non-profit organization that aims to help Motel Drive’s at-risk youth. The group provides them an escape from the surrounding dangers of the neighborhood through resources like their after-school programs. 

Live Again Fresno’s founder and executive director Richard Burrell attended the Thursday screenings. As an ex-resident of Motel Drive, Burrell admitted that he was moved by the community’s show of support for the film, and for their interest in the story of Motel Drive. He also hopes people realize that the story of the Shaw family is just one of many for people living there.

“Honestly, it feels overwhelming,” Burrell said. “I think an important takeaway from the film is that this is one family, one child, who experienced about eight years of living on Motel Drive and Parkway Drive. Today, we still have 388 children enrolled in our after-school program, who are experiencing very similar challenges.”

Live Again Fresno Board Member Deborah Bento first joined the group as a volunteer in 2016. She stayed on after witnessing the resilience shown by Motel Drive’s youth in the face of such harsh conditions. 

“They don’t have a choice as to where they’re born. It’s amazing the way that these children just play. I mean, they don’t have a playground… they need a space to call home,” Bento said. “They don’t have kitchens, they don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables because there are no grocery stores within walking distance, and they don’t have kitchens to cook, so they eat a lot of fast food and microwavable food. 

It’s a real struggle for them to have any type of a normal lifestyle.”

Motel Drive is located in councilmember Miguel Arias’ district. He has described Motel Drive in the past as “the red light district for the whole Central Valley.”

“These are motels that are 80% vacant, they have no market for people to stay there,” Arias said in a past interview with CBS47.“They’re just simply housing for human trafficking, for drug dealers and pimps and the extremely poor.”

The story of the Shaw’s is bittersweet through the end of the documentary. 

The family is finally able to afford stable housing, and Jason and Deandra get sober from their meth addiction. Jason’s relapse years later, however, caused an internal rupture of abscesses gained through drug abuse, and led to the amputation of both hands and feet. 

Justin’s constant uprooting leaves him to continuously struggle in academics to the point where he misses whole school years. Stable housing and a desire to stay academically eligible to play on the high school football team, though, helped him graduate high school. Justin is currently in college pursuing a degree in the medical field, inspired by the doctors who saved his father’s life.

Burrell hopes that the lives of the Shaw family and others depicted in the documentary will help bring awareness to the issues these people face, and will help prevent the conditions from going on much longer. 

“My hope is that we’re able to identify things that happened in the past, over a few decades, in hopes that we never have to repeat [this], and in the hope that families never have to repeat that again,” Burrell said.

Geraghty also shares those goals. He said he understands the general hopelessness most people feel when faced with the issue.

“I know homelessness is very messy, and a lot of people…just throw up their hands. People want simple answers to things, but there are not a lot of simple answers with this,” Geraghty said. 

Geraghty hopes that audiences will leave the film feeling more comfortable with acknowledging and talking about such a difficult subject.

“The [documentary’s] goal is really just to show what that lived experience is like over a decade more or less through a family and a kid’s perspective. To see the complexity of it and spark the conversation to address the myriad of issues whether it’s economic, whether it’s public health and how we treat that, mental health, physical health, addiction… all of these things.” I hope people think about it at the very least and start a conversation.”

Motel Drive first premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival and channel in January. According to Geraghty, the film is close to reaching a distribution deal that will provide a platform for people to stream the documentary.

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