Four years before he was elected president, John F. Kennedy wrote the best-seller “Profiles in Courage,” describing eight senators who bucked public opinion for the greater good.
If Kennedy were still alive and updating his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, he could legitimately add Tucsonans Gordon Packard and Nancy Bissell to his list.
When it counted most to bring change to the homeless in Tucson, 25 years ago, they displayed courage.
It’s easy to forget to empathize with the plight of others.
Most of us ignore homeless people when we walk past them on city streets. We create stereotypes about them to justify our lack of sympathy.
When Gordon and Nancy opened a small soup kitchen in 1982, it was the beginning of helping Tucson’s less fortunate.
“Our story was adventure into uncharted territory by rank amateurs who were woefully unprepared for the challenges of creating a nonprofit organization to assist the homeless,” Nancy recalls.
“We immediately got in way over our heads, but we learned more from our miscalculations and our disasters than from our successes, and in this process we sharpened our insight into what it really means to work from a grass-roots, volunteer and advocacy-oriented base.”
These two amazing people had the courage to stand up and make their community a better place for those less fortunate.
Homelessness! I remember former University of Arizona sociologist David Snow saying, “A starkly sobering state of affairs for most U.S. citizens. For citizens who regard access to decent, safe and sanitary housing as akin to inalienable rights, the thought of homelessness is almost unimaginable.”
In 1995, I became homeless and landed in Primavera’s Men’s Shelter. I was unemployed, with $210.37 in my pocket. My only possessions were a flimsy old tote bag and a small pillowcase filled with a few clothes and two pairs of worn-down dress shoes.
The weather that day was windy and partly cloudy; my emotional equilibrium was below zero. My will was knee high.
I had to recapture my spirit. I recall being angry. Alone in a new city, I was clueless.
Sometimes we do not become adults until we suffer a good whacking loss, and our lives in a sense catch up with us, wash over us like a wave and everything goes.
I never thought I’d land in a homeless shelter. No one does.
Ending my homelessness began by searching deep within my soul, and Primavera provided me and thousands of men and women shelter, food and hope.
Gordon and Nancy had the courage Kennedy spoke about when he said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of these human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Primavera people like to say they sow the seeds of change by strengthening lives, building communities and advocating for social justice, all by providing innovative programs and services to help people transition from poverty to a greater well-being and security.
The result has been a wonderful forward tumble for the past 25 years.
What have they done?
They have focused attention on the intrinsic injustice of homelessness and its structural solutions – community investment in safe, affordable housing, work force development, restoration of rights for former prisoners, and re-entry strategies for those leaving prison.
They assist those homeless with street outreach, providing a place for people to pick up their mail, escape the heat or cold, and get clean clothing.
They help those people find jobs that pay a livable wage.
They help families facing eviction and provide mobile outreach to those individuals who live in our washes and creekbeds.
The Primavera Foundation has been the most courageous Tucson nonprofit I have witnessed.
I can’t think of any two more deserving profiles in courage than Gordon Packard and Nancy Bissell, who give the human race a voice on the homeless battlefield.
Bobby Burns is the author of “Shelter: One man’s journey from homelessness to hope” (UA Press, 1998) and a former Primavera board member.
If you go
The Primavera Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Gala Event, celebrating a quarter-century of service to the Tucson community, will be held Oct. 2 at the Tucson Convention Center’s Leo Rich Theater, 260 S. Church Ave.
The event includes a dinner reception, stories of struggles and success; a concert by Grammy-winner R.C. Nakai; and raffles of a Barbara Falk painting and Schwinn Motor Scooter, each worth $4,000.
Tickets are $150, with contributions for low-income staff, volunteers and participants welcome.
RSVP by Thursday to Natalie León at 623-5111 Ext. 108 or email@example.com.
For more info and to buy tickets, go online to www.primavera.org.