Home for the homeless offers men hope
By Pat Shea
Sun associate editor
The Unity Acres residents’ coffee house is quiet for the moment. Just a few minutes earlier, a crowd of men stopped in to get a cup of hot coffee and enjoy a little fellowship before leaving to complete their daily chores around the complex or seek out staff to help with scheduling doctor’s appointments and mailing out paperwork.
Jim, a resident of the Unity Acres community for homeless men in Orwell for the past seven months, is sweeping the floor and Joe, a resident for six months, is washing coffee mugs. Both men work quietly in unison, glad to be part of this unique community of men that is celebrating 44 years in existence this month.
“Unity Acres has really helped me,” said Jim quietly as he pushed the broom around the floor. “The staff offers assistance with everything you need, whether it’s a hot meal or a just a nice place to stay and feel safe. Sure there’s a few rules to follow,” Jim said with a grin, “but they’re the kind of rules you should be following anyway in life.”
Joe nods his head in agreement. “The staff is great. And they gave me a place to go when I had nowhere else.”
Steve Dickhout, executive director of Unity Acres, understands that for many of the residents, Unity Acres will be the only home they’ll ever have. “I often wonder where these men would go if there was no Unity Acres?” questioned Dickhout.
Unity Acres began as Unity Corners, a non-profit Legion of Mary project of St. Lucy’s Parish in Syracuse.
“The Legion of Mary group was concerned that there were a great many kids on the west side of Syracuse going hungry to and from school,” explained Dickhout. “The group set up a place to hand out peanut butter sandwiches and glasses of milk to the kids. There was always a pot of coffee on in the back of the room and eventually a few homeless men would drift in for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. It wasn’t long before Father Ray McVey, who was at St. Lucy’s and had a real interest in the poor, started to realize that this group of men needed more than just sandwiches: they needed a permanent community.”
In March of 1969, Father McVey purchased what was then the Oswego County Tuberculosis Sanitarium from its last private owner, Mrs. Stanton.
“This place really needed help,” laughed Dickhout. “The roof leaked, there were plumbing problems, there were furnace issues, in short, it was a mess, but Father McVey would just say, ‘No problem.’ He took five faithful and trusting men and they moved into the basement of the facility and bit by bit, they fixed it up.”
In 1995, an ailing Father McVey approached Dickhout, who was then a volunteer, with a unique proposition.
“He knew he was sick and he wanted me to take over Unity Acres for him. That was 20 years ago and I am still amazed I agreed to do it,” laughed Dickhout.
Today the non-profit Unity Acres is home to approximately 75 homeless men.
“They come to us for a variety of reasons and they stay as long as they need to,” explained Dickhout. “Some stay a short time, some a lifetime. Our youngest guy is 35 and our oldest resident is almost 90. We are a community, but at times it almost feels like a monastery.”
Peg McCarthy, a volunteer for approximately 15 years, agrees. “It does feel like a monastery in the evening when things get quiet and the men settle down. Many men have told me it feels like they are on retreat.”
The men who come to Unity Acres are often without income, estranged from their families and have a variety of needs.
“We have to be honest if we can really help to meet their needs,” explained Dickhout.
This unique community does not receive state, federal or county assistance and exists primarily on donations from generous patrons. Four of those patrons, Maureen and Paul Drescher and Alfreda and Patrick Heagerty, will be honored this year at Unity Acres’ fifth annual fundraising dinner on April 18 at Pensabene’s Casa Grande Restaurant in Syracuse.
“I really have mixed feelings about receiving this award,” stated honoree Alfreda Heagerty. “There are so many deserving people who love Unity Acres. I’m 84 now and I don’t get my hands dirty with the actual work there anymore, but I believe in supporting them financially. In the long run, an award doesn’t change your life: it just points out that there are many, many people who are worth recognizing.”
Jon, a large man wearing a ball cap who has been with the community nine years, is waiting on a bench. He plans to head into Syracuse to pick up donations for Unity Acres. While he waits he looks around at the complex and shakes his head.
“I really don’t know where I’d be without this place: I guess probably dead or in the nuthouse,” he stated.
Robert, a young man who has only been with the community six weeks looks up as he hears Jon speak.
“I had nowhere to go until I got here. Unity Acres saved my life.”
The annual Unity Acres fundraising dinner will be held April 18 at 5:30 p.m. at Pensabene’s Casa Grande Restaurant, 136 State Fair Blvd., Syracuse. Tickets are $50 per person; table rates are available. For more information, contact Kris Waelder at (315) 729-0340.
The April 11 Sun cover story “Comm-Unity Acres” incorrectly identified Unity Kitchen as the original name for the Unity Acres community. The correct name is Unity Corners. The Unity Kitchen Community of the Catholic Worker was founded in Syracuse in 1970 and offers gracious dinner hospitality to the poor. The Sun regrets the error.