History and the People Who Make It: Pat Fitzpatrick

transcript edited by Pierce Butler 

This is the thirteenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Pat Fitzpatrick [F], long-time Gainesville community organizer and subject of the documentary Civil Indigent, was interviewed by Isht Vatsa [V] in 2011.

F: I was born in DeLand, Florida in 1949. We moved to Orlando in 1950 when I was one year old, and I stayed in Orlando till I was 19 and joined the Air Force, came back for a couple years to go to college but have been gone for 40 years now.

I went to high school in Orlando, I graduated in 1968. At that time, I ran track and got some scholarship offers. I went to a small school in North Carolina called Brevard. Two things got me. I started smoking – when you run long distances that’s not very good. There were mountains, I had never seen anything higher than a mole hill in Florida,  so I didn’t end up being very successful. I quit after one semester and joined the Air Force. Came back and went to college, when I got out in 1974. Got a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Central Florida, a master’s degree in 1982 from the University of Florida, and a master’s in social work in 1986 from Florida State.

When I got out of college, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I joined Vista, like the domestic Peace Corps. This is 1976, I had just gotten a divorce, had just graduated, had nothing to do, was actually sitting on a dock fishing sometime so we can eat, it was terrible. Living in my car. I joined Vista because you got a hundred and twenty dollars every two weeks. I also wanted to help people. I spent a year down in the Everglades, working in Immokalee, Clewiston, Morehaven, all around Lake Okeechobee with the migrant farm workers. It was a life-changing experience.

We can go without seeing poverty all our lives because of the segregation of the rich and the poor in this country. I got down and saw this deal with the migrant farm workers. I saw how little they paid them, how hard they worked, and then they had company stores that they went to. You had a lot of people from a lot of different countries I worked with. Guatemalans, Haitians, a lot of Mexicans, people from El Salvador, people from Cuba, people from the other Caribbean islands, St Lucia and all. I saw the situation, and it’s horrifying. I call it brutal poverty.

After a year running all over the Everglades and seeing this and learning and trying to get something done and you don’t even put a dent in anything, I got a job working with juvenile delinquents. After five months, I left this in April of ‘77, the migrants had gone up north. By September I was back in Vista again. The migrants came back, and I spent another tour in Vista and quit for a lower paying job. I went to work with the United Farm Workers as a contract administrator. They had a union contract with Coca-Cola, which owned Minute Maid. There was a night and day difference; they made me work on 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. After Vista I joined the union, and there were certain things in the contract that they just had to follow. They were making about three times as much money. So I saw the difference in organized workers and unorganized workers.

I saw counseling as a way to organize people. I got a degree in rehabilitative counseling, University of Florida master’s degree, but I went back to the Everglades, and I worked with the Florida Coalition against Hunger based out of Kissimmee. We did political asylum plus fed people, which was incredible. I got work in Immokalee for a couple years, then I went to FSU and got a degree in social work to see how the system worked.

I moved to Gainesville in the late seventies. Lived downtown in a house, it was actually two houses put together, I paid ten dollars a week in rent and I was making sixty dollars a week as a Vista volunteer. I worked out on Archer and did a lot of repairs on houses out there. I came back a couple years later to get a master’s degree in ‘82 and went back to the Everglades in ‘90 and came back up here because I had a couple kids. Wanted them to go to school up here, I got a job working in the prisons as a drug counselor for about 11 years. They privatized, so I was part of that whole group that got laid off. I’ve been fortunate—I got enough years to get a little bit of pension, substitute teaching, I work part-time with a disabled person. I’ve never had money, I make enough to live.

V: What brought you to the St Francis cause or this situation in the Civil Indigent video?

F: Bob Tanzig is probably the most honorable, hardworking people I ever met; he ran St Francis for over 20 years. It was started at St. Augustine Student Center by Father Bob Baker. They just started a soup kitchen. It then expanded to a couple of more places, until it got on the corner of Main and Fourth. Since then, it’s taken up the whole block here almost. It’s got about 35 people there, and it takes mainly women and children now.

V: Would you say that veterans constitute a significant percentage of the homeless?

F: In some cities, it’s as much as 33 percent. I don’t know how much it is here, it’s probably a large percentage because we have the VA. What we also have here in Gainesville, which is wonderful, we just opened up a dormitory where homeless veterans could go. In the military, you sign a blank check, they can do anything they want. They put six of my best friends six days after high school on a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia. Within a year most of them were in Vietnam. My best friend that I grew up with, John Rommel, was blown up over there and gets a 100 percent disability today. He for 40 years has been in the most pain you can imagine; he lost both limbs, he was blown up and a lot of his insides went outside and he got blown out of his combat boots by a bomb in a tunnel raid. This happened in 1969, and he still has shrapnel that comes up in him. He signed a blank check when he went in there, and they sent him to Vietnam. A little afterwards, I signed a blank check, and I was a recreation specialist. I went straight to San Francisco and passed out ping pong balls and pool balls and ran pool tournaments and set up dances as a recreation specialist. Then they sent me to Alaska, and I worked with the ski lines in the winter and drove charter fishing boats in the summer. I did go do temporary duty eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, so I did my time.

I’m a secular Franciscan; I’m the peace and justice coordinator for this state. We’re not monks but we’re laypeople who live poor and work with the poor. We need to organize ourselves as Catholics and do more than what we’ve been doing. We’re really good at charity but we’ve got to get better at justice.

You don’t see older homeless people. All our buddies die out there.

They even have a law here that you cannot feed people at City Hall. I break it all the time.

With the HOME Van, we have no bureaucracy. If you want an extra pair of socks, we don’t need to go on the computer and look up your name; we throw you an extra pair of socks.

V: Has the University been helpful in advocating for the homeless in the past?

F: There’s a law down there. You’re not allowed to feed people within 1,500 feet. In general, they stay pretty neutral. The president of the university, Dr. Machen, his wife, some of the homeless have pets, they have a veterinary program over at St Francis house. She’s a wonderful woman and works with them. The university, as an institution, has not really made a big statement about homelessness.

V: How does the city government treat the poor in Immokalee compared to Gainesville?

F: First place, Immokalee ain’t incorporated. A lot of those people are political refugees from other countries who don’t have citizenship. Probably three-quarters of the people can’t vote. We had a friend who was a teacher in Huehuetenango, one of the northernmost provinces in Guatemala. About 80 percent of the people are Mayans, they speak Canamwalese. The Spanish people run it. They were teaching Spanish; she decided to also teach Canamwalese and got put on a hit list to be killed. She and her family walked from Huehuetenango to Los Angeles and ended up in Immokalee.

I grew up in Orlando. Lake Eola is the crown jewel of Orlando; it’s a beautiful place downtown, but, as in most cities, that’s where the homeless hang out. They made this law to get rid of the homeless. I went down a couple weeks ago and met with a couple guys from Food Not Bombs, Keith MacHenry who started it. We went to Lake Eola, which I have very fond memories of 60 years ago. My grandmother, who passed away in 1980, I was just eight, swinging me down there. Twenty years ago or so, I took my daughter there when she was a baby, viewed swan boats. My mother’s 80th birthday, we took her to Cherry Plaza, very fine place to eat, celebrated her birthday on Lake Eola. I have some real history in this place. Went to school kindergarten to third grade, St. James Catholic School. I liked Food Not Bombs, they’re not only into charity but also into justice—getting rid of the reason people have to stand in soup lines. We went out there, about 12, 13 got arrested last couple weeks. They had real good food, all vegan. As soon as you feed 25, you’ve broken the law. The Orlando Police, they waited till everyone had gone through before they arrested us. They let the food stay there so the people can get it themselves. I think that’s very nice of the Orlando Police Department. They put my hands around my back. They put us in a very small paddy wagon, which is a racial slur for the Irish, so I’m continuing the tradition of my Irish ancestors.

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.html.

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