One man’s act of kindness started a lifelong friendship between himself and a man that was homeless.
Scott Kuczmarksi, 56, is a retiree living in North Kingston, Rhode Island. He was visiting California in May 2019 when he met Robert Pineda, 59, who had experienced homelessness for 32 years and was living on the streets of Palo Alto. Kuczmarksi stopped to talk to him and buy him a quick snack, and now, two years later, the pair are best friends and live just an hour away from each other.
It all began when Kuczmarksi started reading "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai Lama, which essentially says the way to true, sustainable happiness is by helping others.
"So I went out there with the mindset of, I’m going to hand out water to some homeless people, acknowledge their existence, and that was the extent of what my plan was," Kuczmarksi told "Good Morning America."
Kuczmarksi had been handing out water over a couple of days when he saw Pineda and described his initial meeting with him as a lesson in perspective.
"I noticed this guy on a bicycle that had every single thing he owned on it," Kuczmarksi said. "And I’m walking down the street with my dog with a frown on my face because my coffee is cold, and this guy in that position is riding with a big smile on his face."
He added, "What the heck is wrong with me, grouchy for no reason, when [Pineda] just got up from the street with everything he owns on that bike and he’s got no brakes?"
After Kuczmarksi first approached Pineda for a talk over some coffee, they ended up having breakfast together almost every day for the next three weeks.
"I began to learn about his family and who he was as a person, and it touched my heart," Kuczmarksi said. "What I realized immediately was even though we’re from opposite coasts, we look totally different, our life experiences couldn’t be more different -- we’re the same. We have so many things in common."
"I stepped out of my comfort zone a little bit," Pineda said of trusting a complete stranger to "GMA." "He wanted a friend and it’s not like I had a whole bunch of friends and so it seemed like the right thing to do."
A season of change
Once Kuczmarksi was back home in Rhode Island, the two kept in contact through email and Facebook Messenger.
"We started sharing stories and building a relationship over that," Pineda said.
Kuczmarksi returned to California in October to assist his son in Los Angeles, but also to help his new friend. Living with anxiety and depression himself, as well as caring for his brother with bipolar disorder, Kuczmarksi said he recognized the signs of mental illness in Pineda.
"I wanted to ultimately get Robert to voluntarily seek medical help in the mental health area because I know I found it so helpful and I thought it would be helpful for him," he said.
Not knowing if the two had enough trust between them for that yet, Kuczmarksi told Pineda he wanted to spend a night with him on the streets to prove his authenticity.
"I was in so much shock I couldn’t believe it," Pineda recalled. "But Scott was true to his word."
The two spent the night in the commercial parking garage where Pineda was staying at the time. While Pineda easily fell asleep on the concrete, Kuczmarksi said he "didn’t sleep very well" and "felt invisible" with all the passersby ignoring them.
After that night, Pineda and Kuczmarksi went to Peninsula Healthcare Connection, where Pineda’ paranoia was diagnosed as a symptom of schizophrenia. The community health center prescribed him with Aristada, a medicine used to treat the illness.
"The change of plans and life was starting to begin," Pineda said.
Moving from coast to coast
Kuczmarksi began helping Pineda look for a home in California, but they didn’t find anything suitable. Pineda also wanted a "fresh start" away from the state, so they looked at houses in Rhode Island near Kuczmarksi, but high costs put it in the "dream category."
"But then something big happened in the country," Kuczmarksi said. "COVID hit."
The pandemic marked a new low in real estate market prices, and Kuczmarksi was able to afford a 326-square-foot cabin on a quarter acre of land in Foster, Rhode Island, for Pineda -- just an hour away from his own home.
"I gotta pinch myself sometimes," Pineda said.
And with Pineda being a certified carpenter, the two spent summer 2020 fixing up the home together -- including painting, rebuilding the shed, building a deck and ramp, and landscaping.
"I don’t know how to do any of that stuff but [Robert’s] teaching me all these different things, which was great," Kuczmarksi said.
"It just came out perfect," Pineda said.
A day in the life
The two often hang out, doing things like playing pool and golf, eating meals together, working on the cabin, and traveling.
"We do a lot of things," Pineda said of how he and Kuczmarksi spend their time together. "For the most part, golf is one of our biggest staples."
Pineda has become a part of Kuczmarksi’s family in more ways than one. Aside from being best friends, Kuczmarksi has introduced Pineda to his relatives and the entire family hangs out together.
"My family is wonderful," Kuczmarksi said. "They all agreed and we came in the spirit of just welcoming him into our family. So he’s involved in all the celebrations and everything."
"It’s all family," Pineda said. "It’s really great."
Breaking the stigma around homelessness
In 2020 alone, data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 580,466 people that were homeless. In Pineda’ home state of California, around 161,500 people experienced homlessness on any given night in 2020.
"It’s an embarrassing shame that anyone in this country is homeless," Kuczmarksi said. "There’s no need for it. There's plenty of wealth."
He believes that his friendship with Pineda isn’t unique and that it would happen more if "people got over their fear." The idea that people that are homeless are lazy, dangerous, and different is simply not true, he said.
"The misconception is that people [that are homeless] are mistaken for crime-related people. You were always scrutinized for being homeless," Pineda said.
He added, "They think you’re lazy and stuff like that...it’s not the truth. I was studying and going to college and trying to look for a job but it was really, really tough to do all of that and get myself some infrastructure."
"Spend one night on the street and you’ll see there’s no lazy in that whatsoever," Kuczmarksi said. "The biggest thing is that people think they’re different than them and that’s one of the reasons they don’t look at them -- because when they look close, you’re going to see that they’re not that different than you. We’re the same."
Kuczmarksi urges people to take the time to listen to those that are experiencing homelessness, acknowledge that they’re people too, and make a personal connection.
Social connection is important for both mental and physical health. A study published in the journal "Science" found that a lack of social connection leads to higher mortality rates and is worse for our health than smoking and high blood pressure. Others have found that human connection leads to lower rates of anxiety and depression.
"I would like people to make connections with the homeless," he said. "Get out of the car, say ‘Hi, my name is Scott. What’s yours? What brings you to this corner?’ and just listen."
Another way people can help those that are experiencing homelessness is by assisting them get on food stamps. The myth is that a person must have a mailing address to receive benefits, which isn’t true.
"There’s a great way that’s pretty safe -- you’re getting them food -- that you can help somebody," Kuczmarksi said. "It doesn’t take much, it’s pretty easy to do but you need a computer and you need time and homeless people don’t have either."
Pineda stressed that being offered money and food was a tremendous help, but the social connection with other human beings was important too. While he tried to keep a positive attitude, he said he was at "the end of his rope" before his fateful meeting with Kuczmarksi.
"Scott’s the only person that I ever met that’s ever been a friend in the last ten years that I was there in San Jose and Palo Alto. It was like meeting Mick Jagger or the Rolling Stones," Pineda said. "I believe it was meant to be."
"This is what happens in an extreme case if you start with ‘What’s your name and what brings you to this corner?’" Kuczmarksi said. "I get a lot more out of this than I gave by a long shot."