Empowering The Homeless: Homeless Advocate Shares Experiences

Dave Pacetti, formerly homeless, is an advocate for the homeless and the mentally ill. He serves as treasurer for The Homeless Organization in Akron. The following is an interview conducted between Dave and the Homeless Grapevine.

The Homeless Grapevine: Tell me a little bit about how you began to organize.

Dave: Following the closing of the Okasek Project last year we began to meet with the homeless in Grace park every afternoon and also met regularly in the courtyard of the public library in downtown Akron. [The Okasek Project is a seasonal overflow shelter in Akron. It operates from October-April in the parking garage of the Oliver Okasek State Building. The homeless are provided mats. The project has seen a high of 120 persons this winter.]

HG: Who do you mean by “we”, who was doing this organizing?

Dave: A group of shelter workers and advocates concerned about the closing of the Okasek project began to educate the homeless and ourselves around GA cuts [in May Ohio General Assistance was cut back from $100/mo for 12 months to only 6 months/year] and lack of affordable housing.

HG: Then what?

Dave: We began to organize high impact activities in the community. We staged an all day event called HOPE (the Homeless Organization Picnic Event) across from city hall, we also organized a softball game where 70 homeless people came. We got a lot of community support for this event, the American Red Cross came and served meals and the Akron Public transit provided transportation for the homeless...the bus driver even ended up being the Umpire for the game. But there was still lots of denial in the community about homelessness, and a lack of dialogue with government officials. So we engaged in a nontraditional form of empowerment and took over a park operated by the City of Akron called Grace Park. We did this illegally. The city government finally began to listen to our concerns because of the illegal occupation of a city park or The Grace Park Tent City as we called it.

HG: How many people ended up occupying the park?

Dave: We had a census of 70 homeless people staying in park for the entire 12 days. We had 30 tents and other temporary structures.

HG: What were you hoping to accomplish by taking over the Park?

Dave: We wanted to communicate to the community about the plight of the homeless and demand that the government officials see that they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. We wanted to get attention and dramatize the problem of homelessness in our community. At one point we thought we might keep Grace Park Tent City as a permanent structure for the homeless within the community...but the government wouldn’t let that happen.

HG: So how did the government keep you from staying in Grace Park?

Dave: On the 12th day the mayor moved the police in, and 10 of us were arrested. We achieved significant media coverage especially the night we were evicted from Grace Park. We also got tremendous support which we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, especially from the faith community.

HG: What happened after the ten of you were arrested?

Dave: The charges of criminal trespassing were reduced to a misdemeanor of violating the park curfew and we were released. I’m still upset that the women arrested with us were subjected to body cavity searches. I feel that as advocates we need to have a passion for what we’re doing and I feel we have to take these risks. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can make changes by being nice and playing the game of diplomacy. I believe the Rev. Martin Luther King when he said ‘a person who has not yet found something he is willing to die for, cannot justify his own existence.’ I believe we have to have this passion. As people are dying in the streets, advocates for the homeless can no longer afford to play it safe.

HG: What happened next, after the arrest and being released?

Dave: We moved ourselves and our belongings into a building furnished as a shelter for the homeless...a furnished shelter that was empty.

HG: Where did that building come from?

Dave: It was furnished by the wife of a prominent Akron minister. We acquired the building and are now leasing it to provide transitional/progressive housing for 12-18 men at this time.

HG: Was she planning on opening a shelter?

Dave: Yes, but she offered to lease it to us, and the homeless now operate it. The homeless make their own meals. There are no compulsory programs that they are required to attend. The goal of the Homeless Organization and its project, Unity House, is to empower the homeless as much as possible. We empower by removing them from their day to day survival needs. We are developing them so that they can become a political entity, so that they can speak in a unified voice to address the community and the indifferent power structure.

HG: Explain how The Homeless Organization was formed. Did it come directly out of the Grace Park occupation?

Dave: We formed Unity House and The Homeless Organization the day after Grace Park.

HG: So how did you get involved as an advocate for the homeless?

Dave: I became involved as an advocate for the mentally ill in 1988. I see many parallels in advocacy for the mentally ill as in the homeless movement. It is a real challenge to organize both of these populations because both are absorbed the real day to day struggle for survival. Especially among the mentally ill there is a barrier of silence. There is such a stigma to having a psychiatric label. I see this also with the homeless. Many homeless are ashamed of their socio-economic state.

HG: What happened in 1988 that made you become an advocate?

Dave: I myself suffered a breakdown several years prior to 1988. While in a public hospital setting I saw that something was wrong. I saw that mental patients don’t receive flowers, cards, don’t get back rubs. They are treated like crap by the public and health professionals. I felt the need to speak out for them. I feel people who have a psychiatric label who can articulate their cause have a responsibility to do so. And I also feel that the homeless and formerly homeless who are able to engage in the struggle have a moral imperative to do so.

HG: Tell me more about the opening and running of Unity House. How are you able to pay for the operating costs of the House?

Dave: We have always relied on private funding from individuals and the faith community. We recently received funding from FEMA. [Federal Emergency Management Association - federal dollars made available through the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act.] That represents our first public funding. We still haven’t received our 501 C(3) non-profit status and this makes it difficult for us to receive additional public funding. It is a struggle to pay our monthly expenses, we pay $600 in rent, $100 for insurance, and $350 for the utilities. Our food is donated or residents purchase food with their foodstamps. Once we get our 501 C(3) status we can start using the food bank as well.

HG: Why haven’t you gotten your 501 C(3) status, is something holding it up?

Dave: We are still organizing ourselves and Unity House. We have no paid staff. We rely entirely on volunteer service. If we had paid staff things like that would get expedited much quicker but we have to use the resources that are available. No one is making a living off of Unity House.

HG: So what’s next for the Homeless Organization?

Dave: We are aiming to get back to the streets to work for the homeless to organize into an effective political entity. This won’t happen overnight. Sometimes we get so absorbed with paying the bills at Unity House that we forget our real mission which is to empower the homeless...and start a revolution of consciousness in our society regarding those who are disenfranchised and removed from participating in the “American Dream”.

HG: Besides homeless people doing their own cooking and not having set programmatic requirements, what makes Unity House different from other shelters?

Dave: It’s not a shelter, it is a home. When our employed residents get off of work they say that they are going home. Unity House is their responsibility, not someone else’s responsibility. That makes it very unique. It is an alternative to other shelters...Unity House is not a shelter. The homeless are often mistreated and exploited by many traditional shelters especially by those with a religious agenda...and we feel that the best way to effect this situation is to make Unity House a success and make more progressive housing that is operated by the homeless themselves.

HG: Is there anything else you want to tell me?

Dave: One of the problems I see is that in the process of obtaining funding for many agencies and advocacy groups they have to compromise their vision and many of them get co-opted. I see this as one of the dangers but it is a calculated risk that I am aware of. Where do we go from here? I feel that advocates for the homeless need to see themselves as part of a broader social mission. In our coalition forming we should look at other groups that are also involved in social and economic justice.

HG: Have you ever been homeless?

Dave: Yes.

HG: At the time of your breakdown?

Dave: No, but as a person who suffers from psychiatric illness I am aware of the vulnerability I face to becoming homeless. When we struggle for justice for the homeless we are struggling for justice for everyone. I believe that there are a lot of myths about the homeless and a lot are even reinforced by the advocates themselves. The myths say that people are homeless because of a moral deficiency or because of drug addiction. This isn’t the case. But I feel that even decent people can wind up doing activities that are criminal in nature in order just to survive. Advocates need to challenge these myths in the community. There is no reason, no excuse for homelessness in America, there is plenty of money, resources, real estate to end homelessness today. We have homelessness in America today because we have not made ending homelessness a priority.

 For more information about Unity House or The Homeless Organization feel free to contact Dave Pacetti at: PO Box 3, Munroe Falls, OH 44262.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless in 1993