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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What's the next step for Richmond's (previously) homeless man?

I've been wondering what lies ahead for William Piacenza, the Richmond, Mo. man who lived in a tent with his cats the past seven months. William moved into an apartment on Shotwell Street that's owned by Richmond City Council member Dave Powell. Powell and fellow Councilman Rob Kinnard acted on their own, not as elected officials, to give the homeless man a place to live this winter while he looks for a job and tries to re-establish himself.
I drove by the apartment yesterday to see if the move came off as planned and William's tent and some other possessions were outside the door, along with an English racer-style bicycle. He used that bike for everyday transportation until it broke and he replaced it with a smaller boy's bike. At 56, he uses the small bike to go to the store for food and water for himself and his cats. He'll have running water now, so there may be additional money for food.
What the future will bring is the unknown. Powell and Kinnard have provided an opportunity and a helping hand -- the apartment is William's rent-free until he can pay his own expenses. Work is under way in the community to gather donations to help Powell with the utilities and William with some basic expenses. He has been receiving $200 a month in food assistance from the a state agency, and presumably can continue until he earns enough to support himself.
The question that lingers (at least for me) is whether William can succeed in a very tough job market and if he has the strength of character to endure as hurdles present themselves. When he worked for the Henkel corporation (a manufacturer of automotive components), he said he liked the work but had to leave because his car broke down and winter came. He tried walking for a while, but eventually he gave up the position.
He later lasted two years at McDonalds, but eventually quit for a couple of reasons. There was an employee who was extremely annoying, William says,and hours at the fast-food restaurant were unpredictable. He was often asked to stay late, work additional hours, come in when he hadn't planned to. To his credit, William is extremely protective of and responsible for his cats. Not having a predictable work schedule would've made it impossible for him to stick to a steady routine, something he seems to enjoy and perceives as necessary when it comes to taking care of his two cats.
Not many of us would enjoy unpredictable working hours -- I know I don't -- but the reality is that for survival's sake they have to be endured -- or other work has to be found.
Leaving McDonalds led to William becoming homeless, and Kinnard and Powell have gambled that their kindness will bring results. They've given him until around March 1 to find a job and become -- I'm not a big fan of this expression -- "a productive member of society". I'd call survival a "productive" activity, but that's not how our culture defines it. Time will tell if the gamble pays off, but the reality is that no individual or organization can replace an individual's self-reliance and drive to sustain and succeed, nor can they prop him up forever It won't be easy, but I'd guess there are many people who admire what Kinnard and Powell have done and are glad to see William given another opportunity and he and his cats living indoors.
William might've received help in a big city, but it would've been impersonal and institutional. In Kansas City, a homeless shelter or agency might've provided a place to live, but in Richmond it was one individual (actually several) helping another. And it was all done behind the scenes, quietly displaying the kind of compassion that we all admire. It makes us feel good about ourselves, our society and our potential as caring human beings. It often seems there's not enough of that to go around; but in this instance, an act of kindness in rural America brought light and warmth to the world. 

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