Hot Docs 'Someone Lives Here': Carpenter battles City of Toronto to build life-saving shelters

"It’s really no joke to be homeless in the winter, I would compare it to a war zone. You're fighting for your life," filmmaker Zack Russell said

In an impressive first documentary from filmmaker Zack Russell, Someone Lives Here (premiered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto) chronicles the work of carpenter Khaleel Seivwright who made headlines in Canada and internationally for creating life-saving shelters for unhoused people in Toronto.

“I've never made a documentary before, this is my first one and I really had no intention of making one,” Russell told Yahoo Canada. “But I read a news story about Khaleel right when he started building and something about it really struck me.”

“I could sort of immediately see a tiny shelter with a voice coming from the inside and really I was, naively, so captivated by this. So I asked some friends, fellow documentary filmmakers, ‘oh, are you interested?’ I honestly tried to find someone else to do it.”

Much like Russell initially had no intention of making a documentary, Seivwright also wasn't interested in being a film subject, but he did have a need for some video work.

"I wrote to Khaleel, Khaleel said, ‘I'm not interested actually at all in having a film made, but I do need to make a how-to video because I want to show people how to build these things, so that more people can build them, would you be interested?’” Russell recalled. “I said sure and spent a couple of days with him making this video, and by the end of that, he decided that it was OK to let us hang around for a bit more.”

“We just kind of never left and then the day turned into a month, turned into a year, and we made this film together.”

Despite this sort of unexpected start, Someone Lives Here tracks all the barriers and pushback Seivwright has had to fight through to get these shelters to people amid a catastrophic housing crisis. While donations for his work rose, Seivwright received a cease and desist letter from the City of Toronto. City officials claimed that these shelters are a fire hazard but as the film details, there was no formal fire assessment to validate the city's position.

“The thing that I learned is just how hard our society makes it to survive outside,” Russell said. “It’s really no joke to be homeless in the winter, I would compare it to a war zone. You're fighting for your life.”

“It was just something that I was always so in awe of, how much energy and work and intelligence it takes to navigate this system that is supposedly there to help and care for you, but actually does quite the opposite. … I was making a film but also, I was kind of in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that continues and so it's just spending a lot of time trying to help people not die. I really didn't anticipate a lot of that stuff.”

Khaleel Seivwright in documentary
Khaleel Seivwright in documentary "Someone Lives Here" from filmmaker Zack Russell

'It's just such a horrific societal, widespread problem'

In addition to extensive footage of Seivwright building these shelters, and going back-and-forth with city officials, the film is narrated by the voice of an unhoused woman named Taka, who speaks about what having this shelter has meant to her.

"I had what I never had in my entire life ... my own space,” Taka says in a voiceover. "It’s my refuge. You’re talking to a refugee."

“I met Taka in a park, she showed up one morning with nowhere to sleep and we got to know each other slowly, over a period of many weeks,” Russell explained. “I was there when she saw the first tiny shelter and she pointed and she was like, ‘what are those? I want one of those.’”

“I was there the night that Khaleel gave [her a] tiny shelter and honestly, just from the very beginning, I just found her really engaging to listen to, and so we became friends. … I felt like I really wanted someone who was in one of the tiny shelters to be a very prominent voice in the film.”

Russell revealed that he's stayed close with Taka, who has now been successfully housed, but it it took "an insane of amount of effort" on his part, and on the part of others, to do so.

“I think you need a PhD to navigate the housing system and subsidy system to get someone housed,” Russell said.

“Even though the film is very much about a specific time and place, the evictions continue, still, and people are still having their tents taken away at Trinity Square and Allen Gardens on a daily basis by Toronto police and city workers. … It's just such a horrific societal, widespread problem. ... Governments don't listen and pretend to listen, and pretend to engage, but then constantly fail to enact any of the policies or actions.”

Documentary "Someone Lives Here" from filmmaker Zack Russell

'It's become a lifelong mission for him'

During the process of creating Someone Lives Here, Russell said he was "challenged" by the ethics and "power balance" of having a camera consistently around Seivwright.

“That was definitely a big struggle but I think my way around it was really that we weren't filming a documentary for a very long time,” Russell said. “We waited for a very long time before asking anyone to actually commit to it."

"Khaleel only agreed to the documentary once we had a first cut a year and a half later. So that was one way that I felt like we could kind of mitigate that power imbalance.”

The filmmaker says he was trying to be a friend and support network for Seivwright.

“I think especially with Khaleel, it became a challenge not to talk all the time with him,” Russell said. “You do get to a place near the end where you want to comfort or talk to this person that's become your friend, but trying to restrain as much as possible to just witness and not interfere."

"I also think that this idea that documentary filmmakers need to be objective and neutral is just kind of nonsense, and I think if you're going into a community and you're not trying to offer more than you take, then you're causing a lot of problems. I don't know that we did offer more than we took, but at least that was the intention.”

It's clear from Someone Lives Here that Seivwright has been incredibly determined in his efforts, truly believing in the good that these shelters provide. In the film, we see him push one of these structures to a fire station himself to get professional opinions on the safety of his shelters, and there were even more examples of his commitment to his work that didn't make it into the documentary.

“One thing that I didn't mention in the film was, he wanted to prove that they could warm you through body heat alone, so he took one on the coldest day, it was like -30 C out, and he himself got in it and tried to and warm it up with his body,” Russell said. “He really was committed to proving the use of these things, as much as he was committed to building them.”

“When really bad things were happening to him, I kind of just always trusted that he would persevere because he felt so genuinely in line with his mission. His mission really felt real to him and he believed in it. Although the film ends with the city banning him, he's still working very hard in this field. ... I think it's become a lifelong mission for him.”

The Hot Docs festival in Toronto runs from April 27 to May 7. The next in-person screening of Someone Lives Here is on May 4. The film is also available for online streaming in Canada beginning May 5.