By Alessandra Rizzotti
“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi
My father really wants to go to the desert. After years of living in the snow of Massachusetts, he just wants to die in the sun. We’re exploring more natural options than cremation like freeze drying his body and letting him shatter into dust. Or, just putting him in the ground wrapped in leaves. He’s ok with that. He likes knowing that he will become a part of the earth again in the afterlife. But he really wants to disappear into heat.
There’s one piece of land in Arizona that he’s eyeing, specifically for his last years. He bought it in the nineties to be a hermit, but he never paid taxes on it, and now, it’s sitting there, waiting for someone else to pick it up. My father has never been responsible. He never paid child support. He always lived off the grid, working under the table, and for 19 years, I never got to know him. He represents the infamous “47 percent” of Americans, who, according to Mitt Romney, never paid federal income taxes even though they were most likely capable. He’s dependent on the government, 100 percent, and I’ve only gotten to know why that’s ok just recently.
When I found my father in 2011, 68 years old, hands shaking from Parkinson’s, back hunched over, he was working in a storage unit in Massachusetts, behind a computer, checking one or two people in and out each day, like a gatekeeper. I had traveled to the town he had grown up in because I heard from his estranged sisters that they had seen him from time to time, wandering around the neighborhood on afternoon walks. No one wanted anything to do with him because he was known to take advantage of people, and this is why for so many years, I never bothered to try to find him, even out of curiosity.
I had called the police station to see if they knew of his whereabouts, and they said they had only one record of a person with his name. Apparently he had reported a “dispute with a customer,” but they couldn’t give me more details unless I came in and proved my identity. Two years prior to that, I had tried finding him, but because there wasn’t a police record at the time, he was still off the grid. When I walked into the station, the police didn’t ask me for my ID, though. They just knew that I was my father’s daughter, and immediately told me he worked across the street from the station.
Seeing my father for the first time as an adult was surreal. Given our history, you would think that the neglect would hurt me too much to connect with him, but I didn’t feel anger, even though that’s exactly what I expected of myself. The first thing my father did when he saw me was open his fanny pack to take out a picture of me as a newborn. I was the one thing he was proud of in his life. He asked me what I was all about, and being just out of college, with no direction planned for myself, I didn’t really have an answer. Being there at that moment was what I had been looking for.
My father lived in a house rent-free in exchange for the work he did at the storage unit. A man in the community had seen him sleeping in a gas station at night in 1999 (shortly after my parent’s divorce), and wanted to offer him an opportunity to live in dignity. The job kept him active and his mind stimulated, but because he was so old and could no longer do all the work required of him, his employer could no longer support him and was trying to find other housing options for him, with little success. His employer also had noticed that as my father aged, he seemed to have hoarding tendencies and paranoid delusions symptomatic of schizoaffective disorder, but didn’t have the ability to take care of him. I didn’t know about that side of my father until I saw the way he lived. The house he had been staying in was full of used glass jars, yogurt containers, books, newspapers, filing cabinets of mail, rope, plastic bags, coats, shoes, and an entire storage unit filled with over 100 boxes of things I am still not sure about.
Many people told me that taking him on as a responsibility would lead me down a rabbit hole of hurt. But, I wanted to forgive my father and believe he was good at heart. I saw this as an opportunity to help him, because although he had never raised me or made sure I was taken care of, I felt a need to know he was ok.
In one month, I had to get him out of the house he was able to live in for so many years and find him subsidized housing. I got him connected to SNAP, Social Security, and Veteran’s Affairs benefits, because fortunately, he had served in the military. My father was so ashamed to get set up with his benefits because he didn’t think he deserved it. He felt he had never really lived a life worthy of such, but he served his country, put his life on the line, and did what he thought was right. Ultimately, though, it bothered him most that he knew he was never a father to me, and regretted most of his life choices. He actually said that he would rather live on the street.
For so many years, my father depended on people, and while many got fed up with him, I realize now that my father was looking for a community of people to lean on because he never had the mental health to get to a place where he could be independent. People like my father may be the so-called 47 percent, but these are people who no matter what Romney says, shouldn’t have to be ok with living on the street.
I’ve gotten my father set up now so that as he ages, he can live more comfortably. Every day for one month, I called Salem’s Housing Authority to check in and see if apartments would be opening up. My persistence paid off, and now, my father is part of a larger community of people who look after him. I’ve also reconnected him to his sisters. This I consider to be one of my greatest accomplishments thus far. While I work my way up to financial independence, I hope to get to a place where I can provide for him, without him having to rely on the government. But for now, I have to do what’s best for both of us.
As SNAP benefits get cut, and the middle class finds themselves frustrated about having to support the 47 percent, I worry about the amount of people with mental illnesses who depend on government services. There is a misconception in our society that those who are homeless or rely on these services are either using drugs or choosing to live this way, when instead it’s because they did not have mental healthcare or the family support they needed. Not everyone like my father has a person like myself to help them get back on their feet and find the services they need, and that’s why these services must exist. But it’s not just about the services existing, it’s about having someone to help people in need navigate those services and get what they deserve as human beings.
Why is it that I, the person least likely to support my father, can go to bat for him, but the majority of Americans are unaware about how they can support someone like him? Now that I’ve done what’s necessary for my father, I want to do the “possible,” then the “impossible.” I want to help more people like him get off their feet and out of homelessness by volunteering at LIFT, an organization that helps homeless people get connected to services. I also just joined MAZON in their advocacy efforts to end hunger. These are my first steps towards becoming a more active changemaker. If you know of any similar organizations that I can be a part of, please share your insight. I’m new to this, and I’m just getting my feet wet.
This post originally appeared on good.is and is republished with permission here.
About the contributor
Alessandra Rizzotti is a Community Manager and Editor at good.is, a social network of entrepreneurs, designers, and creative interventionists who are striving to live well and do good. With the “Push for Good” series she created, GOOD’s guide to crowdsourcing creative progress, Alessandra has helped many social entrepreneurs and innovators tell their stories and connect to others in the impact space.
Alessandra is a former contributing writer for HelloGiggles.com’s White House collaboration “Women Working To Do Good,” and she has written for Takepart.com’s “Wildlife” column. She has also designed pitch packets for films in development, two of which have been sold (“Love by Proxy” to ABC Family and “Camp Rules” to Paramount). Alessandra has been published in three Harper Perennial books and has been featured on the online platforms for Smith and Heeb.
The WYSK team is proud to call this Woman You Should Know a colleague and friend.