Andrew Lunetta couldn’t look more comfortable.
He roams the tiny Brady Faith Center, with a cup of coffee in his hand. He greets each person with a smile and when someone starts a conversation, his eyes focus with a look of genuine interest.
Lunetta is easily the youngest there, wearing a navy blue sweatshirt, jeans, and a black winter hat. His eyes are bright blue and light up when he smiles.
The 25-year-old is working a room full of men and women who have faced homelessness at one point or another.
“I would (say) some of my best friendships are with people who are and have faced homelessness. I think it’s that shift of realizing you have a lot to learn from them,” Lunetta said recently.
Since graduating from Le Moyne College almost three years ago, Lunetta has devoted hours of community service to the South Side and to the homeless community in Syracuse. His Pedal to Possibilities program, started in 2011, allows people who are facing homelessness a chance to get out, exercise and ride a bike three times a week.
Lunetta is also the muscle behind a morning gathering at the Brady Faith Center, where coffee and food are served for the homeless community three times a week during the brutally cold months of winter.
Now he’s organizing an initiative to build “Tiny Homes” on the South Side, small housing units for those facing homelessness in Syracuse. He formed a nonprofit group called “A Tiny Home for Good” last November dedicated to the issue.
But when Lunetta was a student at Le Moyne College, he pictured himself as a professional tri-athlete. He spent hours training and went on frequent bike rides.
“(I) very soon realized I got so much more life out (of) sitting down for a cup of coffee with a guy facing homelessness than I did on a bike ride,” Lunetta said.
In college, he started working overnight shifts at Oxford Street Inn, a homeless shelter for men in Syracuse. The shelter welcomed men, even if they might be high or drunk. Lunetta’s job: Get the men out the door around 7 a.m.
He began to see a problem. He wondered what these men would do for the next 9 1/2 hours before they were allowed back in. He could see how some of them would turn to drugs or alcohol.
The men from the Oxford Street Inn shelter are not the only people in Syracuse struggling with homelessness. Every year, the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse completes a winter and summer count of the homeless in the city. This past January, canvassers found more than 500 people sleeping in shelters, according to an article in January on syracuse.com. According to the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse and Onondaga County, more than 1,700 people in Onondaga County don’t have a permanent home.
It’s not a stretch to say that Lunetta came from a family of community service advocates.
His mom, Cathy Lunetta, contemplated becoming a nun and spent a year in Peru, before moving back to Syracuse, where she became the director of the Dorothy Day House, a women’s shelter. His dad, Rick Lunetta, was a Catholic priest for five years on the North Side of the city. After Rick left the church, he began volunteering at Dorothy Day House, where he met Cathy.
Lunetta remembers volunteering at soup kitchens and participating in Habitat for Humanity as a kid. He lived in Syracuse for seven years before moving to Boston with his family, after his dad started a new job.
Lunetta would meet his now-roommate and one of his closest friends — Dan Khev, 25 — while attending middle school in Boston.
“(Andrew) has a tremendous ability to think of a vision and bring people together around that vision. He really does have a tremendous heart. He notices a lot about people who are on the outside looking in,” Khev said.
After graduating from Le Moyne, Lunetta and his girlfriend at the time biked across the country for more than 60 days, ending in California and raising almost $5,000 for the Brady Faith Center through donations from family and friends.
The Brady Faith Center, located right across from the Southwest Community Center, is a familiar place to many on the South Side. It provides services for the community ranging from Sunday Mass to spiritual groups for men and women. Kevin Frank, the center’s director, interacts with people in the community daily.
“You know a lot of people will talk about this neighborhood as a bad neighborhood, and what goes along with that is bad people make up bad neighborhoods. People just don’t understand that there are really great people living in this neighborhood,” Frank said.
Housing history in the city of Syracuse: Unfair past leads to unfair present
Many discriminatory practices and unfair policies in the last century have shaped Syracuse’s housing environment today — so much that it’s led Syracuse to becoming the ninth most segregated city in the country in 2010.
In the 1930s, neighborhoods were ranked based on their financial security. Race played a big factor in these rankings, where neighborhoods with mostly African-Americans were considered high financial risks. These high-risk, predominantly African-American neighborhoods were colored in red on the residential security maps, which is where the term “redlining” is believed to have come from. These evaluations, by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, were intended to prevent foreclosures. The side effect was creating racial segregation for housing opportunities. Having African-Americans in wealthier neighborhoods meant having others’ home values decrease. As a result, landlords and homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods would refuse to sell homes or rent to African-Americans. Redlined areas were the city’s Near Westside and the 15th Ward. Syracuse’s South and West Sides, along with the suburban areas in Galeville, Mattydale, East Syracuse, Solvay and Nedrow, were colored yellow, just a grade above being redlined.
New York State’s first public housing project was in the 15th Ward, a redlined neighborhood. This would start the trend of creating public housing in neighborhoods that also had very low opportunity for growth — making the situation a lot worse. The 15th Ward was destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s, to make space for Interstate 81. As nearly 1,300 displaced residents moved into other areas, white residents left in fear of having their home values decrease.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Felons have a hard time finding a home
Having a criminal history often disqualifies a potential tenant looking for housing. Statistics show that 57 percent of Onondaga County residents sentenced to state prison in 2012 were black, though they make up just 10.4 percent of the total. This jarring statistic — paired with the discretionary privilege of public and private housing providers to refuse housing based on criminal history — puts people of color in the city of Syracuse at a stark housing disadvantage. To address this issue, the Syracuse Housing Authority is in partnership with the Center for Community Alternatives to develop housing specifically for individuals with a criminal history.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Populations of hard to house individuals face very limited options, including large families, those with a criminal history, and single individuals receiving public assistance
This can affect refugee families, in particular, as they often have large families or live with extended family members. Also, single people at a low-income level have a particularly hard time finding housing, as they can’t pool resources. Refugees get little public assistance when they arrive, so it’s difficult if they do not have family to live with. People with a criminal history are disproportionately minorities. There are certain ways to help these people find housing: creating rental units specifically for large families; putting rooming houses in certain neighborhoods in Syracuse; and creating housing programs for people who have criminal backgrounds.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Frank remembers watching Lunetta interact with men at the Oxford Street Inn shelter. He was impressed with how Lunetta knew almost every man by name. Frank said he could tell how much he cared.
“In anything that we do, we can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Even in ministry or service, you can kind of be in it, but not really understand the core and the heart of why we need to be doing what we’re doing. It’s really about relationships. I think Andrew really understands that,” Frank said.
After Lunetta’s summer trip across the country, he returned to Syracuse in September and rented a house on Midland Avenue, deciding to open up his house to three other men who were facing homelessness. He began attending the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University the following summer, in 2013, hoping to obtain his master’s degree in public administration.
Tony Parton, 47, lived in the Midland Avenue house. He met Lunetta through bike rides with the Pedal to Possibilities program, after seeing a flier for the program at his homeless shelter.
He saw the house as his opportunity to leave the shelter system. Even though he found housing, Parton still struggled to find a job.
“I always wanted to try to get out and find work. It’s not easy,” Parton said.
The guys and Lunetta found their bond through biking, and sometimes discussion would turn to a morning ride they had through Pedals to Possibilities. They even got a kitten, after Parton brought one home.
“We tried to eat dinner together every other night or so, which was really nice. We’d all kind of switch on who would cook and who would clean. Everyone was making steps, looking for jobs, going to school,” Lunetta said.
But halfway through his yearlong graduate program at Maxwell, some things began to change. Some guys were still continuing to drink and do drugs in the house, which was against the house policy of no alcohol or drugs.
The thoughts of what the guys were up to whenever he was away began to consume Lunetta. He would stay up all night, listening closely for any type of sign of drinking or drugs. He lost focus at school. He began to feel physical stress from the constant worrying and remembers his knees hurting.
He remembered thinking one day, “I just have my hands in way too many things. There are people that are counting on me and I’m not able to give fully myself.”
He eventually had to tell people at three different points during his year at Maxwell to leave the house. It wasn’t easy.
He was scared the first time he had to approach someone — and took a friend with him to deliver the news.
“I was more scared of ‘Wow, I failed. I wasn’t able to keep this guy out of the shelter long term. He’s going right back to where I took him from,’” Lunetta said.
Last November, Lunetta launched his non-profit, called A Tiny Home for Good in Syracuse. A vacant lot on the near Westside is one he hoped to use as the first site. However, opposition rose when he proposed it to neighbors living nearby.
Cathy and Rick Lunetta have lived in Needham, a suburb right outside of Boston, for the past 17 years. Cathy works as a special education teacher and Rick in human resources. Both their jobs have one thing in common: dealing with people in need.
“I like people. I like a job that helps people. It’s much easier for me to just dig in and do real hands-on service than being programmatic about something. I just get a lot out of it. I get a lot out of that interaction with people,” Cathy said.
She says her son experienced a very open environment growing up, recalling their time attending St. Andrew’s, a church now closed in Syracuse, which promoted a community of social justice, tolerance and acceptance. Lunetta also went to Edward Smith, a school for kindergarten through eighth-graders in Syracuse and one that Cathy says was very diverse, allowing her son to meet many different types of people.
Cathy credits Lunetta with good listening skills and says he brings out the best in people. She notices how he seems to just be completely at home with others in a room.
“He’s so sincere about it, too. There’s nothing put on or fake. He’s not getting anything out of it than just the joy of having that interaction with somebody.”
Cathy believes allowing Andrew to participate in community service growing up helped shape his view of people. They volunteered at a soup kitchen in Boston, which introduced him to the homeless community.
“We get to know these people as more than just a homeless person,” his mom said.
Andrew Lunetta hopes to build tiny homes on the South Side of Syracuse. The homes would be around 250 square feet and resemble a one-bedroom apartment with furniture and other amenities. The homes would be for people who are facing homelessness; rent would be 30 percent of their monthly income.
The “Tiny Home Movement” has become a sort of fad over the past couple of years across the United States. Some people choose to live in the tiny homes because they want to live more simply. The homes can range in size from 100 to 500 square feet and can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $40,000 to build.
The Brady Faith Center
404 South Ave., Syracuse
Sunday Mass at 12:15 p.m.
Women’s Group Monday evenings 7-9 p.m.
Men’s Group Wednesday evenings 6-9 p.m.
Meets Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays (9-10:30 a.m.) at The Brady Faith Center.
Free bikes provided. After 10 rides, participants get a free bike, lock and helmet.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (8-11 a.m.) Usually provides coffee, food and conversation during the long winter months.
“When I say we’re going to rent these three homes to homeless people, bells go off and they think of guys under the bridges, drugs and alcohol,” Lunetta said.
Last November, The Greater Syracuse Land Bank, a non-profit group dedicated to redeveloping vacant, abandoned, or tax-delinquent properties around the city, held a public meeting concerning the vacant lot on the near Westside. Lunetta hoped this meeting would result in the non-profit group transferring the near Westside vacant lot over to “A Tiny Home for Good.” But 15 other neighbors were also present for the meeting, openly voicing their opposition. Ultimately, Greater Syracuse Land Bank representatives said they needed more time for public comment, which Lunetta believes was a nice way of saying he needed to find a new neighborhood for his project.
He believes the negative view of people facing homelessness is what has set the project back.
“I hope to really show that if those facing homelessness have the structure and the safety around them, they can really start to contribute a value and be individuals who society doesn’t brush under the rug or ignore, but who embrace and say these are good people,” Lunetta said.
He still continues to move forward with his plan to build a Tiny Home and is still actively searching for a vacant lot.
Lunetta graduated from Maxwell last year. Toward the end of his program, he felt comfortable asking the men to find their own places or help them look for housing. He knew it was time to move on from the Midland Avenue house.
Now, Lunetta mainly focuses his time on Tiny Homes but makes money doing framing and painting for a contractor on Fridays, Saturdays and some Sundays. He said his work just barely covers rent and gas.
“He can live on nothing. He doesn’t have a lot of material needs. That seems to keep him pretty happy and grounded,” said Cathy about her son’s simple lifestyle.
He currently lives in a house with his close friend from Boston, Khev, and the head of the Pedal to Possibilities Program, Roy Durgin, 26.
Joe Niles, 33, is the oldest of the group living at the house. He faced homelessness after moving back to Syracuse from Florida in 2011 and was unemployed for almost a year before finding work at Gordon Dining Hall at Onondaga Community College. During his unemployed year, he lived at the Rescue Mission in Syracuse and learned about the Pedal to Possibilities bike rides from Parton.
Niles enjoys the community they’ve created in their home, describing Durgin as the resident chef who cooks meals for the house. He said Lunetta is like a brother.
“He has a very upbeat personality. I mean if he is having a bad day, sometimes you might not even know it because he always tries to have a smile on his face,” Niles said.
Parton now works in the kitchen at Le Moyne College. He’s currently living at the YMCA in Syracuse but is looking for a place of his own. He owes a lot to Lunetta, he says.
“I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t meet him.”