Polaneczky: Lawyer took in homeless man for 18 months. Would you?

Jim Pavlock is a Center City attorney who opened up his home to a homeless stranger, hoping to help the man get back on his feet. After many heartbreaking fits and starts, Pavlock recently had to ask the man to leave. Pavlock is photographed in the spare bedroom that the homeless man used.

Jim Pavlock seemed sad as he showed me around his downtown home, the one he shared for 18 months with a homeless man.

The living room, with its grand piano and fireplace. The sunny kitchen, where hanging pots gleam on window hooks. The bathroom and bedroom that the man had to himself. The place must’ve felt like heaven to the poor guy, who’d been in shelters for years.

But it couldn't keep him off the streets. A month ago, Pavlock, exhausted by the man's complicated life, put him out. 

“I feel so guilty,” Pavlock said, choking up as he noted how the man, whose name is being withheld for privacy, had made the bed before leaving. “I have this nice house and a nice job. He has nothing. He’s not a bad person, but I was done.”

Pavlock, 58, is a single lawyer who lives alone. (For professional reasons, he asked that his face and employer's name not appear in this column.)   He’s a devout churchgoer who supports compassionate causes. But when he met the homeless man in September 2015 – they chatted at the Free Library, where the man was emailing his resumé to potential employers – he felt compelled to open his home in a way few ever would.

You know that saying, “What Would Jesus Do?” I’m changing “Jesus” to “Jim.”

Pavlock, whom I interviewed in the past for an unrelated column, reached out to me last year. He had just read a story I'd written about a Media couple who had cared for a homeless elderly woman for two years.

He told me that he, too, had taken in a homeless man and was helping him get on his feet. I spoke with the man by phone and he described how his life had fallen apart.

He had once been  a globe-hopping retail buyer in Manhattan, he said. He had lived in the suburbs with his wife and two kids until he suffered a mental and physical breakdown after an accident. He got hooked on pain meds, started drinking, lost his job and, eventually, his family.

He spent his days looking for work and volunteering at Broad Street Ministry.

“I was taken aback,” recalls Pavlock of his initial meeting with the man. “Here was this educated, well-spoken guy who defied stereotypes about the homeless. He seemed determined to turn things around.”

Pavlock checked out his story and found it to be true. He also suspected the guy had an alcohol problem. Still, the more Pavlock spoke with him over subsequent weeks, the more he felt the urge to help him take baby steps toward stability.

But first, Pavlock took baby steps of his own. He invited the man to dinner. He let him use the washer and dryer. When the man got sick, he let him stay a few days to get better. He realized that the man wasn’t a physical threat; if anything, passivity appeared to be the cause of his unraveling.

As the weather turned colder, Pavlock invited him to move in, with ground rules.

“He wasn’t allowed to be here when I wasn’t home. He had to keep looking for work,” says Pavlock. “I wasn’t going to supply meals, but he was welcome to share whatever dinner I made. We'd see how it went.”

Pavlock saw an immediate difference in the man, who for the first time in a while was getting decent sleep. Rested up, he was easygoing, loved sports, and had fun dropping names from his days as a hot-shot businessman.

But he had little backup. His ex-wife, to whom he owed thousands in child support, was fed up with him. His children avoided his calls. His siblings and father wanted nothing to do with him, but his mother sometimes sent a few bucks.

“He'd burned a lot of bridges," says Pavlock.

The man liked booze more than Pavlock realized. Pavlock watched as time and again, he came home wobbly and headed right to his room, carrying a clanking bag of beer cans. He stayed sober enough to find minimum-wage jobs, then made excuses for why he lost them: They couldn't be reached easily by public transit; his meager paycheck hardly made the hours worthwhile. 

Then money went missing from Pavlock’s wallet. It wasn’t a lot, but that wasn't the point.

“I couldn’t see his life getting better,” says Pavlock. “I told him he had to go. He could still do laundry here, or stay if he got sick again. But I needed my space back.”

It would be easy to say those 18 months were in vain, given that the man is homeless again.  But Pavlock says helping someone in need has made him a more compassionate person. He knows in a new way that there’s real suffering on the streets and that addiction is a merciless bully.

And he’s not abandoned his former housemate, who just turned 51. Pavlock is treating him to dinner.

“He’ll be in my life for a long time,” Pavlock says.

Just not in his home.