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Friday, November 18, 2011

The warmth of human kindness: Two Richmond councilmen help homeless man and his cats move indoors for the winter


(From the Richmond News, Nov. 17, 2011)

     Homeless since April, William Piacenza, 53, says he enjoyed going camping when he was young.
     But his definition of camping – a formal campsite with a reserved space – is a far cry from the tent and wood-fired grill he and his cats have called home for seven months.
     “I like camping. I don’t like that,” he said, sitting on the ground and gesturing to a tent at the edge of the woods near the county fairgrounds.
     Piacenza’s outdoor living arrangements could end as soon as tomorrow, thanks to two community members who will provide a small apartment for him to use this winter.
     “This has the potential to be a good thing for a person in need,” said Rob Kinnard, a Richmond City Councilman active in church missionary and youth programs. It was Kinnard and fellow Councilman Dave Powell who worked out the details that will enable Piacenza and his cats to use the apartment in a building Powell owns on Shotwell Street.

     The men say the plan is that Piacenza will have a place to live through March 1 while he looks for a job. Kinnard said he hopes to raise money in the community to help pay for utilities and cover some day-to-day expenses.
     “We’re hoping that this three-to-four-month period where we work with him to find a job and a permanent place to live will help him get reestablished,” Powell said.
Piacenza says he became homeless after quitting a near-minimum wage job at McDonalds. He said his goals now are to “live comfortably” and “have a job that isn’t nerve-wracking” like the one he said he had at the fast-food restaurant.
     “Being 53, it can’t be too physical,” said Piacenza, who has driven forklifts at several jobs and done assembly work at Henkel in Richmond. “If I can do it, I’d do it.”
    As a result of leaving McDonalds, Piacenza couldn’t pay rent on his apartment and found himself out on the street. He and the other members of his family, “Cat” a shy, 15-year-old male, and “Tiffi,” a year-old female cat he adopted as a kitten, proceeded to squat where they could.
     The weather was good when he set up camp next to the Crooked River near Hardin, but then the water began rising. He and the cats then moved to safer ground at the Buffalo Bridge dike, he said.
     “One morning, about 9, they said, ‘The river’s up,’ ” Piacenza recalled. “You could almost see the water rise. You’d look at it one time and then go back an hour later and it would seem like it was an inch higher.”
     As releases from the reservoirs north of Missouri increased, conditions. Piacenza wasn’t safe where he was, and a Ray County Sheriff’s Deputy loaded him, his cats and possessions in a pick-up and transported them to the country fairgrounds.
     “It’s coming up on seven months now that I’ve been living like that,” said Piacenza, who grew up in Excelsior Springs but has lived in Richmond for around 15 years.
     The fairgrounds was where Piacenza made camp until July, when Col. Gary Bush of the sheriff’s department called Powell, who owns property adjacent to the fairgrounds. With the county fair coming, Bush wondered if he could temporarily move the homeless man and his cats to the vacant land.
     Powell agreed, but the arrangement didn’t go over well with at least one resident in the area, who thought Piacenza might be involved in vandalism. But Powell and others who checked found that the man had no police record and hadn’t caused trouble in his other locations.
     Powell said that both Richmond Police Sgt. Todd Herdman and Bush convinced him that Piacenza was harmless.
     “He said they’ve not had a problem with him in all the years they’ve had to deal with him,” he said of a conversation with Herdman.
     In fact, both public safety agencies had helped Piacenza whenever they could.
     For years, Piacenza had had little contact with his parents, who live in Andover, Kan., and with a sister and brother-in-law in Wichita. He was on his own.
     “I didn’t go through a very good upbringing,” he said. “I guess I wasn’t that good a kid.”
     Bush said he made contact with Piacenza’s relatives, but they weren’t interested in resuming a relationship. When Kinnard recently asked what he could do to help restore his family ties, Piacenza’s response was lukewarm at best.
     “I don’t know,” he said. “It would have to be their interest, not mine.”
     Piacenza has shown devotion to his cats, however. He adopted Tiffi, his year-old female, at about three months.  He found her in the street after she’d been hit by a car and carried her to his house.
     “She was there when I got back (from working at McDonalds), so I opened a can of food and gave it to her,” he said.
     His older cat, now 15, has been with him for much of its life.
     It seems that a big blow was when Piacenza’s marriage broke up. “That must’ve been 15 years ago,” he said.
     The dissolution was actually sanctioned by the court almost 18 years ago to the day. There were no children involved.
     Piacenza said the break-up came at about the same time that he was trying to buy a house on Ralph Street in Richmond.
     He continued to hold jobs, however, earning close to $15 an hour as a forklift operator for Variform, the Kearney vinyl-siding manufacturer, and then working for American Wilcon Plastics in Orrick.
     “There was never any thought of living like that then,” Piacenza said of subsisting in a tent.
     But things began to go south. Around 2007, Kinnard and others became involved. Randy and April Mohn and their son, members of the Assembly of God church in Richmond, offered help, as did the youth group from First Baptist Church. One Christmas, the youth brought him a tree, presents, food, even a coffee machine.
      Piacenza also had help finding work, first at Henkel, then at McDonalds. He liked his assembly job at Henkel, he said, but quit after just a few months when his old car broke down.
     “That car messed up on me and I did some walking, but then there was snow on the ground,” he said.
Kinnard helped him sell it.
     During his months on the street, Piacenza has used a bicycle to get to the store to buy food, drinking water and other necessities. He receives $200 a month from the state Department of Family Services to buy food for himself, but he can’t spend it on the cats, for rolling tobacco or batteries for his transistor radio.
     The radio is his only entertainment, source of information and company.
     Piacenza said he cuts wood for fuel and makes coffee in the morning over an open fire.
     “I fix lunch for me and feed them,” he said of his daily routine. “I listen to the radio a lot. If anyone has some batteries they’d like to give us these are getting pretty low.”
     An apartment couldn’t come at a better time, said Piacenza, who has no other heat source than his clothing and whatever warmth he and his cats generate.
     “I’ve got three shirts on now, but sometimes I have five of them on,” he said.
     Kinnard took Piacenza to First Baptist over the weekend for a shower and fitted him with a new set of clothes.
     “You could just see his self-esteem improve,” Kinnard said.
     Piacenza doesn’t mince words about what he’s been through the past seven months. Nor is he shy about expressing his feelings about being on the receiving end of charity.
     “I’m homeless. This is homeless,” he said of his situation. “Everything I have basically is given to me. It makes me feel worthless. I certainly don’t get a thrill out of it.”
     Powell said Piacenza’s situation could lay a foundation for helping other homeless people in the county.
     “Long-term, we’d like to get a group of people together to help people like this from falling through the cracks,” Powell said.
***
     Individuals or groups interested in assisting Piacenza can contact Kinnard by e-mail at robkinnard@gmail.com or by calling the First Baptist Church office at 776-2296. 

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