The Bay Area, one of the wealthiest regions in the world, also has the largest percentage of unsheltered people in the United States. For those who devote their lives to working with these individuals, the cost can be burnout, “compassion fatigue”. This story is about someone who is determined to keep going.
His name is Vincent Pannizzo. Some people call him Pastor Vinnie and others just Vinnie. Vinnie has a talent for helping people who are sleeping outside get indoors. People like Michelle.
“If it wasn’t for Vinnie, I wouldn’t be alive,” she says.
Michelle has curly grey hair and beautiful blue eyes. Her back is messed up from sleeping on the street, so she uses a wheelchair. When Vinnie met her, more than five years ago, she was lying in the street in Oakland, in front of a Burger King.
“Nobody one would help me,” she says. “Vinnie came over with a blanket and some food. And helped me get motel rooms until we could find a place for me to live.”
Vinnie was able to find her a place in Fremont, and arranged for a donor to help cover rent. Now he sees her every day. He takes her to doctor’s appointments. He fixes up her wheelchair. And he just talks to her, helping her sort out a traumatic past.
“I never had a friend,” she says. “Vinnie was the first friend I ever had in my life. So I owe Vinnie. I don’t owe him. I mean I love him. And now that he’s tired and I’m afraid he’s burning out, I don’t know what I can do except pray.”
Making The Rounds
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Vincent Pannizzo, founder of Mission for the Homeless is making his rounds, visiting people he’s helped get off the street.
“Otherwise they’re on their own,” he says. “And when they’re on their own, they wind up back on the streets.”
Most of Vinnie’s day is taken up with these visits, in this creaky old van with broken door latches. Mission for the Homeless is really just him and a few other volunteers. It’s a pretty bootstrap operation.
“I’m not kidding when I say we don’t know where our next dollar is coming from,” says Vinnie. “So, we get a little bit of money into our hands. Poof.”
Vinnie’s first visit is to a woman in her 80s, named Susie. He pulls up to a modest house set along a busy street in Hayward. On the sidewalk is a long trail of glass. A caretaker at the facility greets Vinnie by name as she surveys the mess.
“Can’t take a day off,” she says. “Everything falls apart.”
The front door to Susie’s place, an “independent living facility”, is unlocked. Vinnie pushes it open and walks through a dark common room, past an older gentleman watching TV and knocks on Susie’s door.
She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, smoking a cigarette. She says she’s been homeless for decades, since her husband died and she lost their house. She has four children, but they wouldn’t take her in. For a time she stayed with one daughter, who abused her. One made her sleep outside on the porch.
“So I went back on the street again,” says Susie.
Now, thanks to Vinnie, she has this bedroom, and a daily visitor, in Vinnie.
He notices her sheets are dirty and asks if he can wash them. Susie protests.
“No, no,” she says. “Every time I turn around you want to wash my clothes and take them where you live and I don’t like that.”
It takes about 10 minutes for Vinnie to persuade Susie to let him wash the sheets. By the time he does, he’s frustrated with her, slamming the van doors shut. He stuffs Susie’s dirty sheets into a trash bag, tosses the bag in the van, and climbs back inside. He settles in and opens a big jar of Handi Wipes.
“Can’t have enough disinfecting wipes,” he says, as he turns on the car.
Vinnie will be the first to admit, he doesn’t like this work. It wears him down. It frustrates him. But liking is not the point.
“People seem to think that being kind is something that has to feel good all the time. And if it doesn’t feel good to you then you’re doing the wrong thing. What kind of nonsense is that? Sometimes it hurts a little bit. Sometimes it involves a little bit of discomfort. A little bit of endurance, a little bit of perseverance. We have to hang in there.”
Vinnie drives to a convenience store, where he buys two packs of Marlboros to bring back to Susie.
An Enlightening Experience With The Bible
This life of driving around the East Bay in a rickety van, buying and giving away packs of cigarettes, washing dirty sheets — it’s very different from the one Vinnie imagined for himself when he was younger. He’s originally from New Jersey and came to UC Berkeley in 1995 for graduate school.
“And I had an enlightening experience with the Bible,” he says.
A friend had given him a book called The Bible Code, which argues that hidden patterns in the Bible predict events from history. Vinnie was an atheist. But he found the author’s mathematical argument persuasive. So persuasive he decided to pick up an actual Bible.
Vinnie began to read more and more every day, and became obsessed with the Gospels, with Jesus’ message of self-sacrifice and absolute love for others. He began neglecting his schoolwork.
“It was like yeah I want to make a career for myself,” he says. “But if this is true, if there is a God, what could be more important? And then one thing led to another, and my faith sort of cascaded into this devotion. And it didn’t stop.”
Vinnie dropped out of school, shocking his family and friends. He began inviting people sleeping outside to live with him in his home until he was kicked out of three different apartments for doing this.
“And I found myself eventually on the streets, serving God. Surprise, I never thought that would happen.”
Vinnie says that first night outside, he had doubts.
“What was I doing to myself? Surely I was insane. However, there was this tiny voice, almost inaudible in me, that reminded me that I knew the truth.”
Vinnie has been homeless ever since then. He sleeps in his van.
“To all appearances, I’m homeless,” he says. “But my home and my life is in Jesus. And I know that if I finish his work, and I carry it out to the end, and I endure to the end, I know that there is a home waiting for me in the world to come.”
No Time For Lunch
The phone rings, and Vinnie answers. It’s Barry, his next visit for the day. Barry is a gentleman who gets around in a wheelchair, who Vinnie says has been on and off the street for many years. With the help of an organization called Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which pays the $2,500 in rent and medical costs, Vinnie got Barry into an assisted living facility.
Barry asks Vinnie if he’ll grab him a Gatorade and an ice cream sandwich and Vinnie says sure.
At the assisted living facility where Barry stays, Vinnie drops the Gatorades off in his room, which has two electric guitars and a chess set. Barry is outside on the patio. Vinnie hands him the ice cream sandwich.
“Cool,” says Barry, “that’s just what I need.
Barry’s tan, with a thick beard and a laid back vibe. He pulls up his shirt so Vinnie can give him his insulin shot. As he gets his shot, he explains the source of a scar on his face — a dog bite from a couple days ago that’s become infected. Vinnie asks Barry if there’s anything else he needs, and then it’s time to go.
“It’s always good to see you brother,” he says, as we leave.
This might be the time when someone would stop for lunch, but Vinnie is usually fasting. Anyway, there’s no time. He needs to go to his next visit: JD. Vinnie met JD several years ago, in a wheelchair with no clothes, in the middle of winter.
“That was disturbing,” says Vinnie.
Because of health problems, JD lives in a long-term care facility in Hayward. Emotional issues have made it hard for him to stay housed, so Vinnie visits him regularly, trying to keep him comfortable by bringing him things he requests. Today it’s cigarettes, a Snickers bar, and stamps.
At the facility, the hallway is busy with nurses and carts of pills and people in wheelchairs. We pass a room, where a sick looking older man laid up in bed calls out to Vinnie. This is Melvin, and he wants to know if Vinnie remembered his cigars. Vinnie forgot them in the van, so he has to take the elevator back downstairs. On the way down, he admits that this work can be wearying.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, I’m worn out,” he says. “Twenty-one years is a long time. And most of that time has been on the streets.”
He fetches the cigars and brings them back to Melvin. As it turns out they’re the wrong kind. But Vinnie has just what JD needs. He’s in a group room, a bit farther down the hallway, and he’s overjoyed to see Vinnie.
“Hey brother!” he says, slapping Vinnie on the back.
Vinnie gives JD a kiss on his head and hands over the items he brought.
“What love man,” says JD. “Man, you came to see me. Let these folks know I got a family!”
‘If She Were My Sister’
Vinnie’s last stop, before he heads back to Oakland, is to see a woman named Rosemary.
“She’s in her 60s, this fragile little thing,” he says. “Running around the streets smoking crack in her 60s.”
With Vinny’s encouragement, Rosemary has agreed to go into a rehab facility.
“And so I’m gonna try to make her happy,” he says, “Because I want her to stay.”
That means stopping at a store on route to get her fried chicken, vanilla ice cream, root beer, and Raisin Bran. It’s no problem, except for the Raisin Bran. Vinnie drives to two different stores, but neither carries it. A third store does, but the lines are too long.
“I always have to go out of my way to get everything that people ask for, you know, they’re very specific,” says Vinnie. “And I can feel my frustration rising. But I have to ask myself: if she were my sister in a recovery facility. Wouldn’t I be willing to go running around a little bit in order to make sure she’s comfortable, and gets what she needs and is happy?”
In fact, Vinnie does have a sister. However, they haven’t talked in years and he says he misses her terribly. His family couldn’t understand his decision to give up graduate school and to become homeless, and they drifted apart. He hasn’t spoken to them in years.
At the fourth store he tries, Vinnie finally finds the Raisin Bran, and he drives over to the recovery center where Rosemary is staying.
Rosemary has good news. She’ll soon be moving into semi-permanent housing offered by the non-profit housing organization Abode.
“So that’s where I’ll be going,” she says. “So I’m not going nowhere, I’m just staying.”
Vinnie gives her the snacks, the fried chicken, the ice cream, tells Rosemary he loves her, and they say goodbye.
Now, it’s back to Oakland to pick up 150 bags of food another volunteer has spent the day preparing. They’ll go out at 3:30 am the next morning to distribute the food. There’s no time for rest. There’s never a day off.
“I just can’t step away for any significant length of time,” he says. “Not even for a day. People depend upon me. Besides, God gives me strength.”
In the Bay Area, as many as 28,000 people may sleep outside on any given night. And many more are housing insecure. Experts agree, we need more investment in affordable and free housing, and more protections to keep people in their homes. Vinnie, and other individuals, no matter how devoted, are not the answer to a problem this big.
And yet, you have to wonder: if we were willing to give up a little more of our time, our comfort — if the next time we passed someone sleeping outside, we asked what they needed, and then tried to give it. What would happen?