Published February 2009 Vol. 13 Isuue 1
by Tom deMers
Before this story begins, Paco was leading the ordinary life of a double agent. By day he sold credit card processing systems for MasterCard. Completely legit. By night he called law enforcement officials with information on consumer fraud. “I felt like Clark Kent,” Paco told me, “earning a living in my business suit and informing on these mafia types in my Superman role.” His undercover work prevented the financial abuse of working people and seniors, and Paco was proud of it.
But when the evidence he gathered on one Ponzi scheme was filed in Denver district court, his life became a nightmare. The filings were public record, and the thugs he informed on came after him. The death threats made him quit his job and drop out of sight. They phoned his mother in another state and harassed her for his whereabouts. Paco said the stress was unbearable. He moved out of Denver and into hiding at the home of a friend. After 18 months that situation became untenable, so Paco moved into his truck and hit the road.
While his erstwhile friends in law enforcement would not give him a new identity, we have. This is the story of Paco’s journey from homelessness to public housing and a new life.
“A homeless friend of mine said everyone should experience homelessness. You don’t know what it’s like to feel disconnected from society until you are a wild animal out there,” Paco says. “You’re walking down the street like everyone else, but you’re looking at bushes going, ‘Could that be a place where I could catch four hours of sleep tonight? Am I going to be molested or arrested, attacked by animals? Is someone going to kick me, steal from me, steal my backpack?’ Homelessness is a state of mind and it’s horrible.”
Paco is a stocky, 5’7” Italian, born in Philadelphia about 50 years ago. Think of Paco before and after. Before, he is heavy with anxiety and self-doubt. Frightened and homeless, suffering from PTSD. After, he is an honors student in a college degree program, a man with a plan and lean with optimism. What made the difference? Four years with a roof over his head. For Paco, public housing was like coming home to paradise.
“I was parked as far back into the hills by the hospital as I could get,” he said. “Sleeping on the floor of my truck, getting frozen, not knowing where I would get food or where I could start my life again or how. My attitude was, screw society, screw mankind. Man’s nature is evil. I was wrong all these years; they’re a bunch of bastards. No one’s to be trusted. I was totally negative, and I was going to go eat squirrels. I know those hills. I used to live up on Sentinel [mountain]. There’s a lot of virgin territory that people don’t normally go to. In truth, I probably would have got frostbite and died, been attacked by an animal or God knows what. But that’s where my head was at. I’m truly dropping out. I’ll eat nuts. My desperation will lead me to find the right roots. I know how to find wild onions. I’ll live somehow. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was December of 2001 that mental health picked me up. They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I go, ‘Why? Why can’t I just regress like a wild animal?’ That’s when I was referred and got housing. Six months earlier I was wearing a white collar and planning to buy a home.”
It’s hard to imagine Paco as a businessman. He’s a little too original, too fervent and self motivated. Take the truck for example. I was the manager of a HUD subsidized property when Paco came out of the woods to find housing. One day my co-worker Mary asked me if I’d seen what was going on in the parking lot. No, I had not. “Paco’s truck,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Take a look.”
Paco’s old Nissan had a feel of impending doom. I’d given him a parking permit without actually seeing the pickup, unaware he was building a camper out of 2x4s and plywood. His project was well advanced, windows in place and a locking door; the camper held all of Paco’s tools and other worldly treasures. A man’s home is his castle, but Paco’s castle had the look of a weird science project. The camper towered above the pickup and leaned a bit to starboard. Other residents worried it would topple over on someone else’s vehicle. Paco was parked next to Mary, and she, too, was anxious. To this day Paco insists the truck was a thing of beauty that just needed more time and perhaps a garage to complete. I asked him to move it to another location while he worked on it. Eventually he sold it.
Personally, I was impressed. Clearly Paco was a creative and energetic guy, and in my mind I began to associate him with another project. The Pineview property I managed is bordered by a small creek that actually runs under part of the building. Downstream of the building the creek side was a tangle of bushes, trees and old stumps. A rosebush had gone wild and stretched its thorny twelve-foot arms to snag anyone who ventured near. Homeless people would crawl in there to sleep or drink. Sometimes there were fights. Might Paco be the pioneer to tame this wilderness?
As spring advanced into summer, I called a meeting to discuss “the creek side project,” the building of a small park along the creek that would be a quiet place for residents to walk and enjoy the water. Several of our avid gardeners showed up. I made sure Paco was there. The old-timers had a lot of concerns designed to halt the project. Would old ladies trip and fall into the water? Were there snakes? Rabid foxes? Many at Pineview were innately resistant to change. At the end of the discussion it was clear Paco owned the project. In fact, unknown to me, Paco had already been spending time there, using the area as a personal retreat. He plunged into the work, clearing a path and making the fifty-foot creek side area accessible to people less adventurous than he. Five weeks later there was a clear pathway paved with mulch and planted with grass seed. A bench had been built with a tree for a backrest. Our grounds crew had supplied the tools and materials. It was definitely a “guy” project, but now the gurgling waters of the creek were more available to everyone.
Paco originated other projects with no assistance from me. In the process he discovered the Pineview resistance movement head on. He brought in a troupe of break-dancers he met on the mall. The rumor mill spun this one as “exotic nude dancers” in the community room. He played with the notoriety and pushed ahead with his plan. He also worried about the prevailing attitude at Pineview. “These were super athletic young men who’d been in a national competition,” Paco said. “They were built like Greek gods. They spun on their heads like tops. They were full of joy about what they did, but people were upset, full of objections. ‘Why? It’s the community room. Why isn’t there life in there?’”
A community room without community. No card games. No music. No laughter. It was like a church with no one to pray or sing, so I welcomed Paco’s initiative. Today I ask him why he thinks it was so lifeless.
“Because individualism is a threat to the group mind, to the Borg,” He said. Paco was bringing in new ideas, stimulating political discussion, disturbing the peace. After a moment he continued, “Pineview is where you come to check out, to go downhill into your depression and hopelessness and physical ailment and fade away,” he continued. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. What about the quality of life? People can’t enjoy a poem, a song, a forum, a dialogue?’ What I never realized was that joy is a radical concept in a place that’s in a kind of deathly quiet.”
Paco’s most notorious project was the Breakfast Club. He originated the idea with his friends Beetle and Francis. If food is love, they reasoned, why not cook breakfast for the other residents each weekday morning? After all, the kitchen was a resource that sat unused 95 percent of the time. With a modest charge for breakfast Paco also saw it as a profit center for their depressed economies. Paco had been a cook at several area restaurants, and Pineview had recently been certified as an agency by the local food bank, making inexpensive food available. The stars were lined up for this one, or so it seemed.
With poverty a major issue for Pineview folks, the first objection was cost. “Exploitation!” cried the naysayers. “Outrageously self-serving!” Why should Beetle and Paco profit when the kitchen belonged to all? Okay, they decided, breakfast would be by donation. The grumblers grumbled on. What about cleanliness, food poisoning, death by botulism? None of this was helped when Beetle was noticed turning a pale shade of yellow. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and dropped out as a cook. Francis had already left the project to continue his life as a writer (published) and painter. It was now Paco’s baby.
The criticism persisted but so did my support for the initiative. I was happy to back anyone with a viable plan to put energy into the community. Breakfast got off to a rousing start with 30 people in attendance on the first morning. Paco ran it for over a year with help from others like Oscar and Darla. No one got sick.
Today Paco is quite aware of how the Breakfast Club benefited him. He pauses for a moment to remember something.
“You know, my big payoff for cooking was that I got to start eating right. I was so lacking in nutrition. Some days when I was homeless, I didn’t eat at all. Other days my thinking was, ‘Well, if I eat a bagel today, I’ll survive.’ So when I got in the kitchen with the opportunity to deal with nutrition for others, suddenly it all came back to me. It pulled me out of this animal street-consciousness and I started to become civilized. I told Oscar, ‘If the people don’t come, if they don’t tip, if they don’t appreciate it, at least we have a nice breakfast!’”
“Another part of my psychological healing was the relationship shift, me being a servant to people, and to all the people, not with a prejudice toward those I liked and didn’t like,” he continued. “I felt like all those bodies needed to eat well. You know, like a parent, and being an absent parent myself, that’s a part of me. Maybe it’s too much sometimes, but it just naturally comes out. A good breakfast is so important to setting the metabolism for the day, combating depression. Food, just food! Whole grains, fruits and veggies. It’s so simple but what powerful medicine.”
My supervisors could have squashed the breakfast club idea. Fears about sanitation or liability issues could easily have been cited as reasons to shut it down. To their great credit, this innovation and others like it were allowed to proceed and bear fruit. This sort of insightful management values the individual as much as the regulations. Like the adage of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish to eat, Paco and others gained far more from making and serving breakfast than they would have from having breakfast set before them. It was simply a matter of allowing his initiative and skills to play themselves out for benefits to accrue and for Paco to incubate a new self-confidence and vision for his life. The key was not being so bound by “the rules” or by the Pineview tendency to view innovation as a crime against the usual dormancy. However, the first step in this process was for someone to pay attention to Paco, to hear his story and sense the potential hidden there. Absent that, Paco would still be at Pineview or given the conditions of his departure, somewhere back in the hills.
Tom deMers is a writer and former HUD property manager. He lives in Longmont, CO. “Paco in Paradise” is part one of a two part series taken from chapters in his unpublished book titled “Living in the HUD.” Part two, “Paradise Lost” will follow in the March edition.