‘Nobody said it was going to be easy’: One man’s view of homelessness in Concord
David Pellecchia (center) attends a Concord City Council meeting where an amendment that would ban panhandling was discussed; Monday, February 11, 2013. (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
He got off a bus in Concord with a ukulele, a laptop and a bag of clothes.
It was Dec. 20, the day the emergency cold weather shelters opened. But David Pellecchia didn’t know what awaited him in Concord when he arrived, days after losing his home and job in Conway. He didn’t know he’d spend three months sleeping at South Congregational Church, eating at the Friendly Kitchen, showering at the YMCA and using the computers at the library.
The 59-year-old, who before this winter liked to keep to himself and always had a place to call home, found a community among Concord’s homeless population. He observed firsthand the roadblocks that many of these individuals face to finding work or housing: dependency on alcohol or drugs; mental illness; physical disability; and criminal backgrounds.
After spending the winter with them, he’s full of gratitude for the generosity he found in Concord.
He’s also full of ideas to improve existing resources: greater access to jobs, health care, showers, laundry and a place where the homeless can camp without being removed for trespassing.
“You have a lot of time on your hands,” he said, “and when you’re witnessing this human tragedy every day, how could you not want to try to come up with solutions to fix it?”
Pellecchia’s experience and ideas come as others in Concord are grappling with the same issues. Mayor Jim Bouley is chairing a committee to draft a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The city council is considering limits on panhandling. Properties where the homeless have camped in the past are now posted for trespassing. The emergency family shelter that ran on private donations for four years did not open this past winter, and the other two emergency shelters are preparing to close for the season.
By last week, Pellecchia had found a job and a room to rent in Concord. But he’s not willing to simply put this winter behind him.
“I don’t want to be the homeless success story,” he said. “The issues that the homeless face are many and varied, and a lot of them need to be addressed. And they’re complicated. Nobody said it was going to be easy.”
Off the bus, on the streets
Pellecchia was working as a live-in manager at a lodging facility in Conway when his work contract expired in December, and he had to leave his home.
He stayed with family for one night and with friends for another, before deciding he couldn’t burden those closest to him. So he spent $18 on a bus ticket to Concord – “totally unawares of what was awaiting me, but I just knew I had a better shot at being in a metropolitan city to survive.”
When he got off the bus in December, he walked downtown and found two men who appeared homeless. He didn’t tell them he was also homeless, but asked them a few questions, including how they were doing and what they needed.
“Well, the first answer was ‘life sucks’ and the second answer was a cigarette and the third answer was some money,” Pellecchia said. “So I had a cigarette and I had a few bucks so I gave each one of them a buck and a cigarette.”
He asked the men where they slept. One lived at a homeless camp. The other was staying at the Salvation Army’s McKenna House Shelter. Pellecchia put his name on a list that day and walked back toward downtown, still not sure where he’d sleep that night. As he walked past Sacred Heart Church on Pleasant Street, he noticed a sign for the Friendly Kitchen and wandered inside. There, he found a warm dinner and learned that the cold-weather shelter at First Congregational Church was opening that night.
First Congregational Church is open to everyone, regardless of whether they’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Sober guests who check in at First Congregational Church are then taken to South Congregational Church on Pleasant Street. That’s where Pellecchia – who doesn’t drink or use drugs – spent most of the winter.
Days without change
Pellecchia’s daily routine became predictable. Navigating the array of homeless resources is “this little juggle that you have to do,” he said. The homeless have to learn where to store their belongings and stay warm during the day – even when and where to brush their teeth.
By 7 a.m., he left the church shelter. After passing a background check, he was permitted to shower at the Concord Family YMCA between 7 and 8 a.m. Those who can’t pass a background test take sponge baths at the shelters at night or don’t bathe at all.
“I can’t tell you how liberating that felt, the first shower after . . . about 10 days,” Pellecchia said. “It was just like, wow. But again, there are guys out there . . . that I’ve spent nights with the last couple of months that probably haven’t taken a shower since I’ve known them.”
The Friendly Kitchen serves breakfast at 8 a.m. during the winter. After eating, Pellecchia went to the Concord Homeless Resource Center on South State Street.
The resource center offers coffee, computers and haircuts. Pellecchia received vouchers to ride public buses, use the laundromat and go to the thrift store at St. Paul’s Church. Through the center, he found volunteer opportunities that kept him busy as he continued to search for a job.
Every afternoon, Pellecchia went to the Concord Public Library to stay warm, use the computer, read and search for jobs. Applying for jobs is frustrating, he said – a tangled web of online forms and personality tests that didn’t yield face-to-face interviews. He felt qualified for jobs in the hospitality and food service industries but sent out dozens of applications for three months before finding a job through Craigslist, doing food preparation at a local restaurant.
“I’ve helped a number of individuals fill out applications online because they have no computer experience,” he said. “So how do these people get a job that don’t even know how to get on the internet?”
Each evening, Pellecchia trekked to the Friendly Kitchen on South Commercial Street – it had moved from Sacred Heart to a permanent location – feeling grateful that his knees didn’t ache too much during the walk.
Pellecchia did move into the Salvation Army’s McKenna House for a short time, hoping that it would provide a more home-like environment. (Guests must leave the emergency shelters in the morning and cannot return until 6 p.m.)
The McKenna House has community service requirements, and Pellecchia was asked to pay a small weekly fee. He chose to leave after two weeks, confused by the rules and payment requirements.
He moved back to the emergency shelters. At 6 p.m. each evening, guests check in at First Congregational Church on North Main Street, where they can store belongings for the next 24 hours. Pellecchia then waited for a ride to South Congregational Church, where he went to sleep and prepared to repeat the routine.
No desire to judge
Pellecchia lived one day at a time and kept a positive attitude. He had a place to sleep, food to eat and compassionate volunteers and advocates looking out for him. He kept busy fixing the computers at the homeless resource center, helping the Friendly Kitchen move to South Commercial Street and volunteering at the YMCA.
That doesn’t mean it was easy.
“I feel blessed that I’ve been able to maintain a clear presence of mind throughout this, because I can see that if what is hindered by either an alcohol or a substance abuse or a mental illness or a physical handicap . . . they’re better folks than me for surviving this,” he said. “I don’t know how they do it.
“I don’t know how they do it,” he repeated, his voice trailing off.
Before this winter, Pellecchia might have judged or labeled the homeless. When walking by a panhandler, he said, “sometimes I would give, sometimes I wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d be annoyed by people chasing after me, sometimes I’d wish this stupid drunk would go away.
“Yeah, I had my own moments of high and mighty. Never again.”
In February, Pellecchia attended the city council’s public hearing on an ordinance to limit panhandling. He didn’t intend to speak but “felt compelled to put a voice on it,” and warned councilors against placing a stigma on homelessness or panhandling.
Pellecchia does not panhandle. He has met about five people this winter who panhandle in Concord; four of them earn money to buy alcohol and one is simply looking for cash. He feels it shouldn’t be up to the rest of society to judge others’ needs, or their reasons for panhandling.
He started a blog to reflect on his experience and list ways to find homeless resources in any city. He outlines what he calls “layers” of homelessness, or the challenges that each individual might face: alcoholism; mental illness; criminal backgrounds; disabilities. He met veterans, people who have been homeless for a long time and young people who recently left their own families. He met people who had recently lost their jobs.
As the end of winter neared, he asked a friend to show him the homeless camps in Concord, and he met people who had spent the winter outside.
Pellecchia doesn’t want to put labels on anyone. But outlining these “layers” allows him to point to the additional resources that are needed for the homeless, he said.
“No, I haven’t felt so self-important that I feel that I can be a major influence on anybody. . . . You only see these needs once you get down in the gutter,” he said.
His own homeless experience behind him, Pellecchia does not want to become complacent. He’ll continue volunteering at the Friendly Kitchen. When warm weather arrives, he will be found playing his ukulele or button accordion in Concord. He registered with the city’s busking program, and is considering a “busking for the homeless” fundraiser.
Among the needs Pellecchia sees are a shower and laundry facility for those who can’t pass the background checks to get into the YMCA. He found the homeless in Concord don’t have easy access to health care, and he dreams of a walk-in clinic.
He wishes there were a “job bank,” where the homeless could easily find small jobs or volunteer opportunities without a confusing application process or background checks. Maybe the homeless could paint homes or mow lawns, he said.
“Anything that you could give them to do that might restore their dignity,” he said. “You see, it’s all about steps. Nothing can be fixed by just a blanket thing, by an additional shelter or by a thrift store or additional food bank. Nothing can be fixed. They’re all great things, and I’m thankful they’re here, but they don’t address a lot of issues, and that’s why there’ll always be homeless.”