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Two Exemplary Advocates for People Experiencing Homelessness

Frances Fitzpatrick

Francis “Pat” Fitzpatrick, photographed by Jenny O’Donnell

Last year, Gene Estess died at the age of 78. His story was an unusual one. After a privileged upbringing and a college education, he spent 20 years working on Wall Street. His family had everything they needed and more, but something about the lifestyle didn’t set right with him. The malaise, according to his surviving wife, stemmed from a feeling that his time and talents had not served any philosophically or morally significant purpose.

In 1984 his attention was caught by a mentally ill homeless addict who hung out with her poodle in Grand Central Terminal. Taking on the project of finding a place for her to live, he connected with the practically brand-new Jericho Project. He was invited to join the nonprofit’s board, and ended up being its director for 18 years. In addition, he was the motivating force behind the establishment of many residences. Helping formerly homeless women get their children back was a particular interest of his.

Estess Left Wall Street Behind

In the summer of 1987, the world of high finance was thriving, but Estess was done with it. He walked away, and a few months later, as if to vindicate his choice, the stock market collapsed. Shortly afterward, he took the post of director at Jericho and worked his first year for no salary.

Imagine writing a movie script about his life. The temptation would be great to invent a scene in which a ruined speculator turns up seeking shelter, and encounters the man he had mocked for abandoning the soulless financial district—who is now running the organization designed to help the homeless. Douglas Martin said in the New York Times:

Today the Jericho Project serves 1,500 adults and children, including more than 500 military veterans, with housing and services. It says it spends $12,000 a year for each adult client—less than half the cost of a cot in a New York City shelter.

Fitzpatrick’s Work in Florida

In Gainesville, Florida, Cleveland Tinker published a tribute to Frances Fitzpatrick on the occasion of his election to the Hall of Fame by Florida’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Perhaps Fitzpatrick’s destiny was shaped by his undergraduate years as a history major, from which he went on to earn a degree in rehabilitation counseling. His career included time in the military, a period of living in his car and catching fish to eat, and a couple of years as a Vista volunteer helping migrant workers in what he calls the “brutal poverty” of the Everglades.

He was hired by the United Farm Workers to handle, in his words:

…slave and peonage cases where they had this curator system where the curator is hired by the grower, and he exploits the hell out of these people. There were people in slavery, and there was actually a crew that got paid only in wine.

He worked for the Florida Coalition Against Hunger, and as a drug counselor in the prison system until privatization put an end to that. Living by the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, in the 1990s he served on the board of directors of a shelter and soup kitchen named after the saint. Unlike his fellow directors, who only showed up for meetings, Fitzpatrick stuck around to mingle with the residents.

In 2002 he was part of the group that founded the Home Van, Alachua County’s mobile soup kitchen and clothing distributor. The principled troublemaker has picketed City Hall, and been arrested for giving people food. When Gainesville passed an ordinance that put an arbitrary limit of 130 on the number of meals the soup kitchen could serve in a single day, Fitzpatrick’s spirited objections cause him to be ejected from City Commission meetings numerous times. But in the end, the restriction was repealed. A highly regarded documentary film, Civil Indigent, http://civilindigent.com/was made about that chapter of his life.

In 2013 he was interviewed for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. Among other matters, he spoke of his fondness for the Food Not Bombs organization:

They’re not only into charity but also into justice—getting rid of the reason people have to stand in soup lines… We’re really good at charity but we’ve got to get better at justice.

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Source: “Gene Estess, Who Left Wall Street to Aid the Poor, Dies at 78,”
NYTimes.com, 04/19/14
Source: “A Champion for the Homeless,” Gainesville.com, 01/13/12
Source: “Civil Indigent,” civilindigent.com, undated
Source: “History and the People Who Make It: Pat Fitzpatrick,” Gainesvilleiguana.org, 03/08/13
Image by Jenny O’Donnell