A new direction for Irish Investigations blog

A scene in Montpelier, Vermont. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

A scene in Montpelier, Vermont. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

If this blog had a storefront window, I’d have put up a sign in October: “Back in 10 Minutes.”

Oops. It’s been more like 10 weeks.

I’ve been busy developing a professional website to usher me into the next phase of my writing life — that of an independent documentary journalist, seeking rewarding and in-depth projects that I hope will take me to places I’ve never been.

The central theme of Irish Investigations is, “Everybody has a story.” I still embrace that, but I want to explore the larger context of those personal stories — how and why people live as they do. Is it by choice? Or are there other forces, not always benevolent, that dictate what happens to them?

I continue to be inspired by the courage and strength of people who face adversity, who get knocked down and keep getting up. Now it’s time to dig deeper, go further, to bring about positive change.

So here it is. My website, http://jim-mckeever.com, covers some of the landscape I’ve seen in 30-plus years of writing, mostly for newspapers. It took a long time to sort through my files, and I came across a lot of stories I had forgotten about.

Some of the content on my site is recent, while other pieces are dated but still important — to me, anyway. I hope they help me begin the next chapter.

I will continue to post here in Irish Investigations, although less frequently. WordPress offers a great community of writers and readers, and I have benefited greatly since Irish Investigations launched in 2013. I thank you all.

Posted in Irish Investigations, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

At age 11 and fighting cancer, Wayne taught me how to live

Wayne at Watkins Glen International Speedway, which provided his family with free admission. Wayne was a huge NASCAR fan.

Wayne at Watkins Glen International Speedway. He was a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Original version published in July 2013. Wayne died Dec, 2, 2010.

Watching a child die should slap us in the face, provide some perspective as to what’s really important and how we should live our lives.

That’s what my little buddy Wayne did for me. He would have turned 14 this month.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since the cancer took him, but I still think of him a lot. It’s hard not to, when my work takes me to the children’s hospital where Wayne was a patient. Two memories stand out.

April 2010: Wayne had been admitted to the hospital (again) and couldn’t go home for Easter, so Easter came to him. His room looked like Christmas.

Wayne’s mom, grandmother, aunt and cousin were there, but there was barely enough room for them. Wayne had a mini race track set up on the floor, and there were cars and remote controls, toys, Legos, Bionicles and who knows what else all over the place.

But Wayne was sitting on the bed, holding one of his stuffed animals.

Of course I had to pick on him a little bit. That’s how we got along. I asked him why the heck he was playing with a stuffed animal instead of all the “guy stuff.”

Without missing a beat, 11-year-old Wayne gave me a look and said, “Hey, come on, you know every man has his soft side!”

Perfect comeback, perfect timing and delivery . . . just perfect.

Halloween 2010: Every year the children’s hospital holds a Halloween parade for the kids who are inpatients. Doctors, nurses and staff give out goodies to the kids, who dress in costumes and walk or are wheeled to treat stations set up in the halls.

Wayne had a procedure scheduled the morning of the parade, and was nowhere in sight as the fun began. I told his Child Life Specialist that he was downstairs for some tests, but his mom was going to rush him right up afterward.

I recall the Child Life Specialist saying something like, “I hope so. This could be his last Halloween.”

Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital

Wayne during the Halloween parade.

Wayne made it to the parade in plenty of time, dressed like one of his favorite characters, Ghost Rider.

After the parade, I shot some video of him in his room as he went through his bag of goodies and picked out his favorites. After about 90 seconds, Wayne got bored — tired, more likely — and looked directly into the camera. “That’s enough,” he said, without a trace of meanness.

Six weeks later, at 2 a.m., he died at home in his mother’s arms. (He was able to be home for Thanksgiving to enjoy his favorites, stuffing and apple pie.)

When the Child Life Specialist told me the Halloween might be his last, I didn’t want to believe it. I knew Wayne’s leukemia had returned, but he looked strong and was well enough to walk in the parade and get excited about his loot.

But cancer can be ruthless, and it didn’t give in this time.

I thought of Wayne when I read Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” She writes of visiting a friend who is dying of cancer. At the hospital, a nurse tells Anne to pay particular attention to her friend now because “she’s teaching you how to live.”

Wayne was a good teacher. I wish I could have told him I was paying attention.

Wayne, on the first day I met him in early 2010 at Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital in Syracuse, NY.

Wayne, on the first day I met him in early 2010 at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, NY.

Posted in cancer, children's hospital | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

‘Tell the truth — it’s the best lie!’

A quote for our Sad Season of Trump:

“Tell the truth — it’s the best lie!”

The quote is a few years old, but more relevant than ever. It’s from a developer advising a not-for-profit youth sports board how to proceed with a land purchase.

I was on the sports board at the time. While I don’t recall the particulars, apparently we didn’t need to “misremember” any land covenants or environmental restrictions, and simply had to make an honest presentation to local officials.

I do remember, however, the developer’s voice rising with excitement as he defined truth as “the best lie!”

Can you envision an entire society that adopts that mantra? That the truth is such an oddball rarity that you pull it off a dusty shelf only when you don’t need to lie?

Step back and look at the political climate in the U.S. in late 2015. Has it always been this dismissive of the truth, of reality?

Not too long ago, the pervasive dishonesty was rather humorous. Stephen Colbert’s take on “truthiness” made us chuckle, shake our heads and roll our eyes at politicians who have issues with honesty and reality.

It’s not funny anymore. The lies keep coming, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.

But it’s not the liars who scare me. It’s the hundreds of thousands of followers who don’t care if their chosen one is lying through his teeth. As long as he keeps preaching to their fear and ignorance, they’ll keep buying what he’s selling.

It’s downright frightening to imagine where that could lead us. Or are we already there?

Posted in Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

October 30, 1990: One life begins, another ends

Syracuse police officers salute during Friday's ceremony honoring slain officer Wallie Howard Jr. on the 25th anniversary of his death.

Syracuse police officers salute during Friday’s ceremony honoring slain officer Wallie Howard Jr. on the 25th anniversary of his death.

October 30, 1990.

The date has such significance that even the numbers carry extra weight in their mathematical symmetry: 10-30-90.

It is a date inextricably linked to life, and to death.

It was the day my second son was born, around 11 in the morning. A baby brother to the 2-year-old at home. Double trouble of the best kind.

A few hours later, on that beautiful crisp autumn afternoon, I drove home from the hospital to relieve my sister-in-law who was watching my older son. I looked down from the highway toward Syracuse’s Valley section and wondered why so many police and emergency vehicles were gathered in a grocery store parking lot.

A police officer had been shot and killed. An undercover drug buy had gone bad, and a beloved 31-year-old native son, Wallie Howard Jr., was gunned down. Shot in the head. By a 16-year-old.

Such a juxtapositi0n of hope and despair, of joy and grief.

A day of pure elation over the birth of a healthy baby, one who has done so much good in his 25 years, will forever be linked in my mind to the death of another young man who wanted to do good.

In his hometown, Wallie Howard Jr. is remembered every Oct. 30, with newspaper stories and ceremonies.

I think I’ve read every word about his life and death, but had never attended any events. I was always busy on Oct. 30, celebrating a life rather than mourning a senseless tragedy. But the connection was never far from my thoughts.

This year, perhaps because it was the 25th anniversary, I went to the ceremony in a downtown Syracuse park.

As I listened to the police chief, the mayor and others speak, I tried to soak it all in. The tributes were sincere and heartfelt, and as I listened I kept thinking of numbers, of ages, of the passage of time. I wondered what the past 25 years have been like for Wallie Howard Jr.’s two children. He left a four-month-old daughter and a 7-year-old son who, at 32, has lived longer than his father.

I looked around at the rows of police officers in the park and guessed that some weren’t even born when Howard was killed. I wondered how many of them have young kids at home.

And I thought about my son, born on a gorgeous Oct. 30 that had been filled with so much promise.

Twenty-five years ago. One life ends, another begins. 10-30-90.

Posted in crime, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

‘Campus carry,’ hardware store ‘hero’ and more gun madness

It’s only a matter of time — weeks, days, hours . . . minutes? — until the next mass shooting in America.

We’re all so tired of this. Tired of the “thoughts and prayers,” the anger and intransigence on both sides of the Second Amendment, the empty rhetoric from our alleged representatives.

This has dragged on so long (Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charleston, etc.) there’s virtually nothing new to say, nothing fresh to add to the discussion. I try to read the comments on social media about the Oregon murders, and it’s so infuriating and polarizing, so depressing, I have to turn away.

To sports. Netflix. Anything.

I start to feel better in my escapism, my apathy, and then I think of my three sons. They’re in their 20s, and they’ll have to live among the madness longer than I will.

Bottom line, I hope they don’t get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — a pretty pathetic goal for a parent in a civilized society.

America’s entrenched gun culture scares the shit out of me. Somehow we allowed the Oregon murderer and his mom to have 14 guns in their home, all nice and legal. The mental health screening argument doesn’t wash with me. Why does anyone need 14 weapons, other than perhaps you’re planning to take six of them into a classroom and start firing?

I like what Australia did, although I doubt it would fly here. The country imposed tough laws after a 1996 massacre that killed 35 people, and it hasn’t had a mass shooting since. Suicides have also declined.

The U.S., for all its collective smarts, has really fucked up on this. We’re dying in droves — innocent kids, battered partners, the depressed who can get it over with quickly and messily, the street toughs who didn’t have much hope to begin with.

I understand now why some splinter groups have tried to form their own utopian societies, out of fear or disillusionment with what surrounds them. But the Oneida Community didn’t last long, and Jonestown and the Branch Davidians . . . those didn’t work out so well.

Since I can’t flee to some uncharted island, I hope lawmakers realize the “solution” to our gun problem isn’t to let everyone start packing heat. Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System show it’s not a good idea, but facts, which can be annoying, get in the way of an ideology rooted in selfishness and ignorance.

As soon as I start thinking America’s not crazy enough to revert to the Wild West, I stumble upon things like this: starting next August, some Texas college students will be able to bring guns to class and other areas of campus.

It’s a state law dubbed “campus carry.”

What a really, really bad idea. Tell me the faculty and non-carrying students aren’t going to be scared to death any time a controversial topic comes up in a crowded lecture hall.

(I can hear the argument now: “If a ‘good guy with a gun’ had been in the classroom at Umpqua Community College, he could have stopped the ‘bad guy with a gun.'” I doubt it, since this bad guy was also wearing body armor and had a lot of ammo.)

Anecdotal evidence aside, allowing more people to carry guns just isn’t the answer, whether it’s a 21-year-old on a college campus, your child’s kindergarten teacher, the crossing guard, the neighborhood barber.

There’s the dangerous tendency to play the hero, as a woman did in Detroit this week, pulling out a gun and firing several shots at a shoplifter’s vehicle in a Home Depot parking lot. No one was injured, and the shoplifter got away.

The shooter, a 46-year-old with a permit, happened to be in the area, put two and two together and came up firing. She could face charges.

One firearms instructor put the woman’s actions in the “worst nightmare” category. No. A “worst nightmare” would be if the shooter injured or killed innocent bystanders — say, a child in a car seat or a guy who went to the hardware store to buy a drill.

What an awful way to die. What a stupid way to live.

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A gift for James on his 50th birthday — a home

James Williamson at his 50th birthday party. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

After years of living on the streets, James gets the keys to his own apartment the day after he turns 50. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

A few weeks ago I asked my homeless friend James what he thought about his upcoming 50th birthday.

“It’s just another day,” he said as he sorted returnable bottles and cans before taking them to the redemption center. “Just another day.”

James couldn’t have been more wrong. He turned 50 today; tomorrow he gets the keys to his own apartment. If there’s a better birthday present, I’d like to see it.

Thanks to the efforts of a variety of people who know and admire him, James is finally off the streets — where he’s been for more than half his life.

Today, James’ friends and supporters helped him celebrate his 50th and the beginning of a new chapter. The mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, attended the second of two gatherings held in his honor.

“I can’t believe the mayor’s here,” he said. “I’ve never met a mayor before.”

James prepares to blow out the candles on his 50th birthday cake. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

James prepares to blow out the candles on his 50th birthday cake. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

He and the mayor discussed cooking vegetables, and James joked that the next time she sees him downtown, he’ll be showing some extra pounds from eating too much birthday cake.

Yes, there was cake — two, actually, both made from scratch, including one for breakfast at Freedom of Espresso, a coffee shop whose co-owner Anna Dobbs has been helping James for years. At his second celebration of the day, James made a point to thank Dobbs, who wasn’t among the dozen or so in attendance.

“This all started with her,” he said, prompting smiles throughout the room.

James has been smiling a great deal since he transitioned into a motel two weeks ago. A few days before that, when he was sleeping outside on a bench, he had his belongings stolen — the second time in a matter of weeks.

The thefts coincided with efforts by community advocates Mary McLaughlin PhD and John Tumino, who operates a not-for-profit outreach, In My Father’s Kitchen.

McLaughlin had watched a recent video about James by photojournalist Kevin Rivoli, and arranged a meeting with an agency to get services for James. Things started falling into place. Tumino then helped him find the apartment and is guiding him through the transition, including working with an agency to get the apartment furnished.

James even picked out a color scheme — black furniture, red couch, white kitchen table and chairs.

James and Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner at James' 50th birthday celebration. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

James and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner at James’ 50th birthday. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

It’s important, Tumino said, for people to maintain a connection with James now that he’s found housing. Volunteers from In My Father’s Kitchen will visit and help him with life skills and with situations in which he may need support.

James is ahead of the game.

He’s intelligent, respectful and sociable. He has no addictions other than cigarettes and coffee. He doesn’t panhandle, and walks several miles a day collecting returnable bottles and cans to redeem for walking-around money.

More than once during the birthday celebrations, I heard the phrase, “It takes a village.”

I also felt some momentum starting to build.

A customer at Freedom of Espresso offered to donate a piece of art for James’ apartment … a party guest noted that he and James are about the same size, and said some clothes are headed his way … co-workers of mine are asking me what else they can give (they’ve given a lot already).

And then there’s this: the notion that, as long as James thrives in this new chapter, there might be someone else on our streets who could use a village.

John Tumino gives a blessing before cake is served at James' birthday party.

John Tumino gives a blessing before cake is served at James’ birthday party. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Homelessness in Seattle: Part Two

A regular on the streets of Seattle's Pioneer Square.

A regular on the streets of Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Three observations from my recent Seattle visit that included volunteering for an organization that advocates for the homeless:

Possessions

As I walked through downtown one afternoon looking for street newspaper vendors to interview, the rains came.

I was soaked and needed to dry out before boarding the train home. My port in the storm? An Irish pub in Seattle’s gritty Pioneer Square.

At the bar, a man with close-cropped gray hair — and sunglasses — had just ordered a drink. The bartender asked where he was going to sit.

After the man settled into a booth near the entrance, I noticed he had a backpack and a large, lumpy garbage bag with him. Both were at his feet, sticking out into the aisle. He took his time with his drink, gazing out the window at the rain, sunglasses on. He folded and unfolded a small piece of paper, looking at it and putting it back in his pocket several times.

The place started to fill up with well-dressed professionals who had called it a day. The man got up and headed for the back of the pub, presumably to the men’s room. He left his backpack and garbage bag where they were. After about 10 minutes he hadn’t come back, and I left.

The next day I saw the man sitting with his backpack and garbage bag on a bench in nearby Occidental Park, a common gathering place for Seattle’s homeless.

If you’re homeless and in a crowded white-collar establishment, you needn’t worry about anyone stealing your stuff.

Acceptance

The smell of urine — stale, pungent, soaked into clothing — is unmistakeable and powerful. I observed two instances, both involving women and unrelated to the volunteer work I was doing. I was simply using public transportation.

As I waited on an underground platform for a train, three men in bright yellow security vests converged on a woman. She was wrapped almost head to toe in black, and gave off a strong odor they must have detected before I did.

They surrounded her, and rather casually told her she had to leave. I heard the word “hygiene.” She left, but not before sitting down next to a trash can and rocking back and forth until she was again told to move along. I wondered where she would go.

A few days later: A disheveled, white-haired woman boarded a city bus on a busy Saturday afternoon, sunny and warm. As she walked by, there was no mistaking the odor. She was in bad shape. The bus was crowded. She picked a seat a few rows behind us, next to a man who, to his credit, didn’t get up and move. I looked back as we got off the bus, and I wondered where she was going.

Grace

Jonas Stone is a street newspaper vendor who told me bits and pieces of his life story. He worked a variety of jobs, served in the military, was a sound technician for a rock ‘n’ roll band, married and divorced twice. He’s 57, has five children and four grandchildren.

“I really started drinking when my first son died at birth,” he said. That was in the 1980s. “I had a one-track mind, drinking two fifths of rum a day.”

Jonas Stone sells a copy of the weekly street newspaper, Real Change.

Jonas Stone sells a copy of the weekly street newspaper, Real Change.

He ended up in Seattle and was homeless for about 15 years, often sleeping under a tree. One day he was sitting on the ground and a woman asked him if he wanted help. He said yes, and wound up in rehab.

The day after Jonas told me about the woman, I asked him: What made you say yes?

“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, as they say,” Jonas said. “She had seen me a few times, and could see my condition was deteriorating.”

He relapsed after a month, got into trouble and was given the choice of rehab or jail. He chose rehab, and this time it stuck. That was 2007. Now Jonas goes home every night to an apartment he shares with another veteran. “I don’t want to drink,” he said, “and I don’t need to.”

I wonder. If that woman hadn’t cared enough to ask Jonas if he wanted help, where would he be right now?

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Homelessness in Seattle: Part One

In Seattle's Pioneer Square, Jonas Stone works his corner selling copies of the weekly street newspaper Real Change. In the background is a young man sleeping under a coat next to his cardboard sign. Soon after I took this photo, a security guard woke the young man and told him to leave. Someone had left a blanket for the young man, but he didn't take it with him.

In Seattle’s Pioneer Square, Jonas Stone sells copies of the weekly street newspaper Real Change. In the background, a young man sleeps under a coat. Jonas was homeless for 15 years, but quit drinking eight years ago.

My recent vacation in Seattle included volunteering with Real Change, an award-winning weekly street newspaper sold by homeless and low-income street vendors.

I spent some time with vendor Jonas Stone, 57.

Jonas was homeless for about 15 years until he stopped drinking and successfully completed rehab on his second attempt.

He’s spent the past eight years selling Real Change at a busy corner in Pioneer Square, Seattle’s gritty “original neighborhood.”

Jonas Stone, street vendor for Real Change.

Jonas Stone, a street vendor for the Real Change weekly street newspaper.

Jonas started drinking in the ’80s after a son died at birth. Now he brings joy to the faces of passersby, cheerfully ordering them to smile and to have a good day. If they have a suitcase and are headed to the ferry, he tells them to send him a postcard.

“I know what it’s like being down and out,” Jonas said. “If you don’t stay positive, all you get is negativity.”

Jonas is a success story. I didn’t have to look far from his corner to see others who were clearly hurting.

Seattle has a huge homeless — “problem” is the easy word here, but the more optimistic word is “challenge.” And many residents, organizations and elected officials are meeting it head on.

The city approves and regulates “tent cities.” Churches open their parking lots to families living in their vehicles. Organizations like Real Change advocate for the homeless and for low-income people who can’t afford to rent a decent apartment.

Seattle is a beautiful, vibrant and growing city, but it is not cheap to live there. Lucrative tech jobs have helped drive up property values and housing costs. Real Change cites a national study showing urban homelessness rises 15 percent with every $100 increase in rent.

Take it from a woman who regularly buys Real Change from Jonas: “I make almost six figures and can’t afford to live in Seattle.” Instead, she lives in Bremerton, an hour-long commute to her job — by ferry.

The Seattle/King County Commission on Homelessness conducts an annual “One Night Count” by sending volunteers out from 2 to 5 a.m. to document how many people are living in the streets.

The Jan. 23, 2015 count was 3,772 people living outside, an increase of 21 percent from the year before. Another 6,000 or so are in shelters or transitional housing.

Walk almost any street in downtown Seattle and you’ll soon see someone under a blanket on a sidewalk, asking for change at a corner or wandering around, talking incoherently. Men and women, young and old, black and white.

As I walked the city, I kept thinking about the emotional and mental stress of not having anywhere to go. Nowhere to sleep, nowhere to feel safe. Day after day, night after night. And that’s on top of the obvious physical toll and danger of living outdoors.

Some days it was discouraging. Poverty, addiction, mental illness, lack of opportunity and other factors that can contribute to homelessness all seemed overwhelming, a complex mess that will never be solved.

But there were moments — listening to Jonas talk about his recovery, watching 500 people give standing ovations to courageous Real Change Vendors of the Year Lisa Sawyer and Michael Johnson — that gave me hope.

Yet those comforting, comfortable moments also made one thing very clear. The vulnerable can’t do it alone. They need, as Real Change believes, a hand up. That’s where we come in, starting with awareness and compassion, followed by action.

I’m in awe of those relentless advocates who keep at it, who keep fighting for the vulnerable no matter how messy it gets. And I’m grateful they’re out there doing it.

(More observations on Seattle and homelessness to come.)

The Union Gospel Mission in Seattle's Pioneer Square, where many of the city's vulnerable residents gather.

The Union Gospel Mission in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Rescued from the brink, a house becomes a home

A "Community Build" renovation project in Syracuse, now home to three formerly homeless men.

A ceremony to unveil a “Community Build” house in Syracuse, now home to three formerly homeless men.

The homeless population in Syracuse, NY, officially decreased by three Wednesday.

It took about 4,600 hours of volunteer time, help from more than 50 companies and $107,000 in in-kind services, but Ed, Frank and Pat — homeless at points in their lives — now share a home of their own.

Ed, one of three men living in the home.

Ed, one of three men living in the home, thanks volunteers at Wednesday’s ceremony.

The ribbon was officially cut Wednesday morning outside the home, which underwent extensive renovation in the past nine months. The residents were selected by the Rescue Mission, which operates a men’s shelter and provides other services just a block away.

“It’s so exciting to see the work these men have done on their lives, how they’re really taken control of their lives, established incomes and become very self-sufficient,” Rescue Mission CEO Alan Thornton said.  “We’re really excited to be celebrating that with them today.”

Ed, Frank and Pat actually moved in Aug. 28, and welcomed about 70 guests to their open house after Wednesday’s brief ceremony under a sweltering sun. The first floor has a good-size living room, dining room and a kitchen that leads out onto a back deck, complete with a grill.

Pat led me on a tour of the upstairs, where each man has his own bedroom. He said the three have known each other for a while and get along well, despite the “nuances” each brings to the group.

Pat, one of the residents, shows visitors the backyard deck.

Pat, one of the residents, shows visitors the backyard deck.

Inside and out, the place looks nothing like it did earlier this year. Flowers bloom out front, and grass seed waits to take hold in dirt that once was strewn with syringes. As one speaker said, the structure has been transformed from “an eyesore to an asset.”

I had the privilege of helping to restore the house on two visits with co-workers from Upstate Medical University, in April and again in June. We cleaned up the yard, hauled old roofing material to the trash, power-washed the exterior, swept floors, painted doors and more.

On our first visit, the amount of work needed seemed insurmountable and I wondered why the house hadn’t been torn down. But at the end of six hours or so, we made enough progress to be encouraged. On the second visit, it felt like the renovation was in the home stretch.

All the while, the overriding feeling was that it would take an incredible amount of work by a lot of people to make the house into anything that could be lived in.

It’s more than that. It’s home.

Rescue Mission of Syracuse

The house under renovation in April.

 

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Meet the young man behind ‘A Tiny Home for Good’

Andrew Lunetta stands in front of one of the vacant lots where his organization, "A Tiny Home for Good," plans to build residential units for the homeless in Syracuse, NY.

Andrew Lunetta in front of a vacant lot where his organization, “A Tiny Home for Good,” plans to build residences for the homeless. The proposal has been delayed while it awaits action by Onondaga County, which owns the land.

Andrew Lunetta is devoting his abundant energy to building “tiny homes” for the homeless in Syracuse, NY.

“For some reason, the homeless population really called to me,” Andrew said. “They’re the poorest of the poor. The most forgotten of the forgotten.”

The logistics of making these tiny homes a reality are complicated. But his philosophy isn’t: If we’re able to help others in need, we should do it.

A survey last year counted 68 chronically homeless individuals in Syracuse. Andrew’s response? In the next five years, let’s build 68 safe environments for them.

Homes.

Andrew Lunetta

Andrew Lunetta

Andrew’s organization, “A Tiny Home for Good,” wants to build six 250-square-foot “tiny homes” in two city neighborhoods a couple of miles apart. That’s six homeless people who could be indoors before winter.

But the proposals have hit a snag or two.

Onondaga County owns the land where “A Tiny Home for Good” wants to put four units, and would have to agree to transfer the property.

Andrew hoped the county legislature would discuss the tiny homes proposal at its monthly meeting Tuesday (Sept. 1), but he was told it won’t be brought up. The legislature previously delayed a decision and is doing so again because of “community pushback,” Andrew said.

County legislator Monica Williams, whose district includes the vacant lots, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Now the other “Tiny Home” site, where two units are planned, may be delayed as well.

Two homes are framed and ready to be moved from a warehouse onto the site as soon as a billboard is removed. But now the company that owns the lot has more questions, Andrew said.

“Since the city or county wasn’t involved, I thought the process would be smoother,” he said.

Time is running short, and a lot has to be done — soon — if the tiny homes are to be up and inhabited before winter.

Andrew’s approach is a calm blend of idealism and realism, but the delays have him frustrated.

While he waits for things to play out with the two parcels, he’s looking for other vacant properties in Syracuse that would be suitable for tiny homes. (Contact him via the “A Tiny Home for Good” site.)

Just 25, Andrew has devoted the past several years to helping the homeless and underserved in Syracuse. He worked the late shift at a men’s shelter for two-plus years, and is on the board of the Brady Faith Center ministries.

Four years ago at the Brady Center, Andrew started the “Pedal to Possibilities” bicycling program for community members as well as the homeless. Three mornings a week, a group rides up to 10 miles through Syracuse. The rides provide exercise, socialization and empowerment.

But to tackle homelessness effectively, Andrew believes in the “housing first” approach championed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The idea is to provide a safe living environment, and follow it up with an umbrella of services — case managers, physical and mental health evaluations and treatment, clothing and job training. It’s working in other cities, and Andrew insists Syracuse has enough resources, financial and otherwise, to succeed.

Government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and individuals can all do their part, Andrew said.

“There are so many faith-based communities that can cover the bases,” he said. “People can check in on the residents, and see how to help once they’re housed.”

Maria Sweeney, a Syracuse advocate who runs Maria’s Outreach, says Andrew’s tiny homes plan reflects his compassion and his innovative ideas to solve the problem of homelessness in the community.

“A Tiny Home for Good not only provides housing, but also fosters a sense of dignity and respect,” Maria said. “Andrew is an amazing leader.”

Andrew has felt the pull to help others for a long time. After high school, he joined City Year and worked with kids in a school in Cleveland. Then he earned a bachelor’s degree in Peace and Global Studies from LeMoyne College and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University.

He’s putting all that to work on the streets of Syracuse, where he can directly help the people he most wants to serve.

The poorest of the poor, the most forgotten of the forgotten.

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