Last night, we said goodbye to Keith Petrulis. His friends, family, and community gathered at Trinity Church on the Green for a two-hour memorial service organized by U-ACT, the Unhoused Activists Community Team. More than a dozen people who knew and loved Keith got up to speak about his life and the ways he touched them. Below are several eulogies that were delivered at the memorial. (Update: Additional coverage appeared in the New Haven Independent and Yale Daily News.)
To honor Keith’s legacy, DESK has established the Keith Petrulis Stipend Fund, with all contributions restricted in use to stipends for people with lived experience who are participating in direct advocacy, activism, and governance service.
Steve Werlin, DESK
The week Keith passed away, I got a call early in the morning from a local TV reporter. He wanted to get a comment from me regarding the City’s proposal to buy a hotel out on Foxon Blvd and open a new, non-congregate shelter. I told him to meet me at DESK’s Drop-in Center at 9am.
So I got my kids off to school, hopped on my bike and headed downtown, and when I rolled up to DESK, Keith was sitting on the sidewalk, right out front, where he had spent the night.
In the months before that, Keith had been kicked out of a couple of other places where he had been sleeping in Ninth Square, not because he was leaving a mess or because he was causing any widespread public health or safety issue, but simply because people didn’t like the look of someone sleeping outside. Keith ended up in front of our Drop-in Center because it was familiar. “I feel safe here,” he said.
So that morning, after I gave my thoughts to the reporter, he asked me if Keith wanted to say a few words. And I said to the reporter, “Don’t ask me. Ask him.” Keith didn’t bat an eye. He simply shrugged and said, “Sure, why not.”
Keith had only slept a few hours that night. Aside from having been out on the sidewalk, his sleep apnea made it difficult for him to get more than a couple of hours at a time. So he was a little bleary-eyed. As the reporter was clipping the microphone onto Keith’s shirt, I thought back to Keith’s first press conference as a member of U-ACT, back in December. The group had just begun meeting a few months before, but we were entering winter, and we felt we needed to make a statement to the public to highlight the life-or-death choices people in Keith’s situation were facing in the coldest months of the year. So we asked Keith to say a few words. Understandably, he was nervous — how do I look? will I say something stupid? will I freeze up and forget my own name? Even at his first at-bat, he knocked it out of the park. So much more of a natural public speaker than he ever gave himself credit for.
Over the course of the winter, Keith had the opportunity to flex his newfound skills as an advocate and activist in the public sphere. He was finding his voice. In the spring, the Conn. Coalition to End Homelessness invited Keith to take part in a panel discussion at their annual meeting, entitled, “Including Voices with Lived Experiences Equitably,” where he presented to a standing-room-only crowd of providers and funders. He was not only advocating for himself and his friends; he was serving as a model for raising up voices that otherwise go unheard.
So that morning, Keith spoke to the reporter, one-on-one. And as I listened to the exchange, I could feel my heart swelling. There was something truly beautiful about the scene. He spoke a little about his challenges on the street, because he was asked, but really he stayed focused on the new hotel-style shelter, what would work, what might not work — a real expert who made his opinion known, because knew his opinion mattered.
This past spring, Keith had been invited by the Board of Alders to join an advisory committee, reviewing the City’s shelter funding. And they met for the first time just days before Keith’s passing. I know he left that meeting a little frustrated. He wanted to be helpful, he wanted to contribute, but he didn’t feel like his words were being valued — he walked away feeling that he was being listened to but not heard. But he didn’t let that deter him. He didn’t quit. He resolved to press forward and keep working with city staff. Keith was someone willing to put in the hard work of consensus-building.
I only knew Keith in the last few years of his life, and didn’t really get to know him well until the last ten or so months. He lived a whole life before I knew him. But a life’s-worth of experiences created the person I knew. And so I feel incredibly fortunate to have met Keith when I did. People are not, by and large, born as leaders; there isn’t really such a thing as a natural leader. Leaders grow into that role through the experiences that shape their beliefs and actions. By the time of his death, Keith had lived those experiences and was embodying the qualities of a great leader. Losing Keith means losing a leader in our community.
But in lieu of leadership, Keith has left us with the next best thing: inspiration. Keith’s example, his commitment, and his passion can, should, and must inspire all of us in this room and beyond to make our community a better place for everyone, and to measure our collective health by the quality of life of those in the greatest of need. And for this inspiration, I will always remember Keith, and I will always be grateful.
The Brother I Hardly Knew
Hello, my name is Terryl Daluz. I am the eldest brother of Keith Petrulis. I want to start off by sending my deepest condolences to all those who loved Keith. I apologize for not being there in person, but I live in Los Angeles and was unable to get back to Connecticut in time for the services. Although Keith was my brother, I did not have the pleasure of getting to know this warm, kind-hearted man like some of you in this room. Unfortunately, Keith and I did not grow up together. We lived a totally different life, in different households, with a fifteen-year difference between us. What we share is the same father, Leroy Jones who is also now deceased. May they both rest in peace. It saddens me that I learned so much more about Keith in his death than when he was alive.
When I was notified by our sister Kia that our brother Keith had passed away, I paused for a moment and said “Our brother Keith?” To be honest, there was a moment when I thought, “Who is Keith?” I only met him once, almost ten years ago when I was first introduced to him by our father. Granted we did not grow up together, but he is still MY BROTHER. We share the same DNA, same bloodline, and hearing that I had a brother who was found dead on the street was a hard pill to swallow. I had mixed emotions. I did not know how to feel. I knew one thing, “NO HUMAN BEING SHOULD HAVE TO DIE ON A COLD PAVEMENT ALONE.”
That began my journey to find out who Keith really was. I read every newspaper article on Keith. I was happy to see that he was an active member of U-ACT, a strong advocate for the unhoused community of New Haven. I read how when Kaysie Mire felt scared and alone when she first came to the homeless drop-in center, Keith welcomed and comforted her. I read how Keith was such a good friend to Tyrell Jackson and together they complemented each other. I read how Billy Bromage of U-ACT stated that he was such a warm and funny person but always present for everyone. I was like, “WOW, how noble”! Here he was dealing with his own dilemmas but still took the time out to help others.
I wanted to know about Keith’s upbringing to get a better understanding of him. I was able to contact his uncle Paul Petrulis. Paul is the brother of Keith’s late mom Kathyrn Petrulis. May she rest in peace. Paul and his wife Judy Petrulis raised Keith from twelve to eighteen years old with their sons Andrew and Daniel Petrulis. Keith grew up in a loving home with them attending church, playing football, and being a member of the Junior Marine Corp. He had aspirations of becoming a marine.
Paul told me that he would take Keith on a regular to visit our grandmother Miss Gene Cobbs (Who is turning 97 this September 29th). Our sister Kia informed me that he lived with her for a while and that our nieces and nephews had a close relationship with him. Our brother LaRoi kept in contact with Keith and would hang out with him at some of the bars where Keith was a bouncer.
I also found out that Keith had Christy and Micheal Czekaj (pronounced check eye), rest in peace Christy, as an extended family who showed him lots of love and treated him like family throughout his life. Their children Wolly, Dennis, Abigail, and Elizabeth were like his siblings. Abigail and Keith had a close bond.
I felt a sense of guilt that I did not have the same experiences as everyone else had with him but It warmed my heart to know that Keith had loving relationships with so many people. So, how does a person that was loved by so many people, end up alone on the street? Without getting into the intricacies that impacted Keith’s life from a child to an adult, I can say he was dealt some bad cards.
When someone has trauma that they have experienced throughout their life, it doesn’t go away, they carry it with them, and if they do not receive the right care needed it can be detrimental. I am sure we all have experienced some form of trauma in our lives but imagine having to carry that around, while dealing with health issues and sleeping on the street in the rain. Some of you in the room may know exactly what that is like, some of you may be on the brink of it as we speak and some of you have been fortunate to not have a clue what it feels like to not have a place to go home to rest your head and clear your mind.
Unfortunately, Keith had to carry those burdens with him up until he took his last breath on August 7th, 2023, on that sidewalk alone in front of a place that was the closest thing to home for him. I wanted to tell his story because I wanted the world to know that Keith was more than just a headline that read “Homeless man found dead outside of a soup kitchen.” Keith was my brother, YOUR BROTHER, A FRIEND, A loving man, an advocate for social change who battled for equal rights as human beings to be rightfully housed! Please, let’s not let his death be in vain. THIS IS AMERICA! We need the resources to make sure that no human being has to experience what Keith had to experience.
Thank you, and may you all have a blessed day.
My name is Billy Bromage. I am an organizer with the Unhoused Activists Community Team, U-ACT. Keith was a fellow activist and also a friend, and he will continue to be a big influence on the way approach the activist work that U-ACT does.
I want to extend my sincere sympathy to Keith’s family, friends, fellow activists, and to all of the Greater New Haven community. This is a big loss for all of us. It is heartbreaking that Keith left us decades too soon.
When I saw the news that my fellow U-ACT leader, Carl Ferris, texted me about someone passing away overnight in front of DESK on August 7th, my heart sank. Somehow I knew it was Keith, even though I hoped with everything I had in me that it wasn’t him. When I got a text confirming the terrible news about an hour later from Kelly Fitzgerald, a champion of U-ACT since before we started, my heart broke.
Just a few days before Keith and I had met with Rev. Luk, the pastor of this very church, about placing lockers near the church, so people who are unhoused can store their belongings, which is one of U-ACT’s core demands – demands that Keith was instrumental in shaping and promoting. Two days later, on August 3rd, Keith texted me that he had just finished a Zoom meeting with a special committee that he was nominated for with a New Haven alder, a city official, and a service provider. Other speakers will share more about that committee and that meeting. That was the last text I got from him. The next morning, I was in a meeting with people who were interested in building other organizations like U-ACT in other cities in Connecticut, and Keith’s name and the work he was doing kept coming up. That weekend I was at a picnic with some activists from around the state, and when I was talking about U-ACT, I actually apologized to one of the activists because I was focusing so much of my comments on Keith’s contributions. U-ACT is planning a recruiting and training push this fall, and Keith was put forward as one of the key people to lead it.
Keith and I were in touch almost daily, either at the weekly U-ACT meetings on Wednesdays or at our community lunch and speak outs on the Green on Thursdays, or over text or the phone…or sometimes CashApp when he needed a little extra to get by that day. The thought that he would only be with me from the spirit world, and that we wouldn’t see each other so regularly, was almost too much to bear. I only knew Keith for a year, but he had a deep impact on me.
As others have said and will say, Keith was a fighter. He fought every day to survive on the streets of New Haven. And, he fought for his rights and the rights of so many people who were also unhoused, some he didn’t even know, but the truth is that he did know a lot of people. In a U-ACT meeting shortly before he passed, I sent around some sheets of paper we had been using during our weekly community lunches on the Green to collect names of unhoused folks who might want to join U-ACT. I asked U-ACT leaders to mark down who they knew on the list, so we could do outreach in a more personal way. When the list came back to me, about half the names were marked with “KP”. No one else had marked more than one or two. Keith was fighting for himself and his friends, and even for people he didn’t get along with, but he knew their rights are not being respected.
Others have spoken or will speak about some of the specific issues and actions that Keith fought for. I won’t go into detail about those, though I admired Keith’s commitment and passion in all of them. I wanted to close by remembering the day that Keith was evicted from the spot he had been staying for two years outside what Keith called “the art gallery” on Crown Street. He called me and a few other U-ACT folks when the property manager from the Ninth Square office across the street told him he had to leave, then called the cops instead of talking to Keith. When I arrived, Evan from DESK was there and Keith was upset. The property manager had taken several photos of him, and he was standing across the street waiting for the cops to arrive. When I tried to take photos of him, he ducked behind cars and slinked into his office. In spite of the seriousness of his situation and losing his home, Keith was in activist mode, demanding that the property manager come out and talk to him and own up to what he was doing to a fellow human being who had a right to a safe place to live. When the cops arrived, Keith continued to defend his right to a place to live, while Evan and I also defended that right. When it was clear that Keith would have to leave or be arrested – let me just pause for a moment to acknowledge how upside down that is: Keith would be arrested because someone else called the cops to take away the home of a person who was well-respected by others in the neighborhood – Keith gathered his belongings and began to walk away. I noticed tears in his eyes, which was the one and only time I had seen that in my time of knowing him. He was losing the home that he had relied on for years, and he was being deeply disrespected. I felt so badly for my friend in that moment, and I was glad he had all of us with him – Evan and me at that moment and all of U-ACT when we returned a few days later to protest in front of the Ninth Square office, with Keith taking a lead role on the bullhorn.
I cannot forget that Keith’s fight, and the fight of all U-ACT members, comes from deeply personal and emotional reasons to stay involved in the struggle. Keith kept that in the front of his approach to activism, and he knew his voice was among the very most important voices in our fight for justice. He lifted his voice, and he made it a priority to support other people in doing that too. I will always have deep respect for Keith’s courage to do that on a regular basis.
We miss you, Keith, and we always will. Your light and your warmth were far too great for death to extinguish. We will carry your light and your message with us always, and we will continue to fight with your name and your memory in our hearts. Much love to you, brother.
Video taken outside a Ninth Square Apartments, where U-ACT members demonstrated following Keith’s eviction from a space outside a building where he had been sleeping (with support from local residents) for two years.