The New Haven unhoused community mourns leader and friend Keith Petroulis

Petroulis, a core member of the unhoused activist organization U-ACT, died while experiencing homelessness last month.

Maggie Grether

September 12, 2023, 1:04 am

Staff reporter

Courtesy of Billy Bromage

To his friends and family, Keith Petroulis was a leader — someone who channeled his personal struggles living on the streets of New Haven into fierce advocacy for other homeless people.

More than 60 people gathered at Trinity Church on the Green on Friday — young and old, resident and non-resident, dressed in a mix of black mourning and everyday clothes — all with the common goal of commemorating Petroulis’ life.

Petroulis was found dead Aug. 7 outside the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen restaurant on State Street, where he had been sleeping for several weeks. Petroulis, known to friends as “Grizz” because of his large stature, was 36 years old.

At the memorial, family and friends remembered Petroulis as an advocate for the New Haven unhoused community: bold and outspoken, funny and sometimes stubborn, dedicated to the New Haven unhoused community and not afraid to call out politicians on face-saving platitudes.

“It’s an incredibly profound loss for us in many ways,” Billy Bromage, who worked with Petroulis as a member of the non-resident activist organization U-ACT, told the News. “Just on a personal level, but also in terms of the activist work that we do. The little movement that we hope is powerful — or will soon be powerful — that we’re building. It’s a huge gap for us.”

Petroulis was a core member of U-ACT, which formed in New Haven last year. Petroulis helped shape the group’s central demands: the city Ending evictions of unhoused people of public lands, stop disposing of the property of unhoused people, and provide permanent public bathrooms and free public bathrooms for everyone.

Petroulis represented U-ACT at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness’s 2023 annual conference. He also led U-ACT’s effort to create lockers on the New Haven Green where unhoused people can safely store their belongings. Days before his death, Petroulis met with the pastor of Trinity Church to discuss a plan to install the tanks.

Having previously worked as a cook and janitor at Toad’s Place, Petroulis has been homeless since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A month before his death, Petroulis was evacuated from a partially protected area outside the Ninth Square apartment complex, where he had lived for more than two years.

According to Mark Colville, a longtime New Haven activist and U-ACT member, Petroulis had permission to sleep outside an apartment complex in downtown New Haven and was on good terms with several of the tenants who spoke to him regularly and gave him food.

In June, Petroulis woke up to a man taking pictures of him, Colville said. Someone in the building called the police, and officers quickly showed up and threatened to arrest Petroulis if he didn’t leave.

Days after Petroulis was forced to leave, U-ACT members gathered outside the Ninth Square apartment complex to protest his eviction.

“If you want to talk, we can talk now; “We can talk quietly, or we can talk loudly,” Petroulis said through the loudspeaker YouTube recording Of protest. “I am a human being – I am a human being. You could have talked to me like the person I am now.

At the demonstration, Petrolis carried a sign that read, “Stop criminalizing homelessness.”

“It took some courage to turn that personal hurt into a public response,” Colville said. “That was perhaps his best expression of leadership: Take your personal pain, unite it with others and do something publicly about it.”

After losing his place of residence, Petroulis moved every night in search of a place to sleep: some nights he would collect enough money to stay in a hotel, and other nights he would sleep in various public places in the city center.

In the weeks before his death, he began sleeping outside the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen restaurant.

He felt extremely disrespected. “He felt like he was being treated inhumanely,” Bromage said.

Jean-Claude Harrison, one of Petroulis’s closest friends, said he was excited to join U-ACT after his friend’s death.

“Remembering everything he said to me made me realize that if his voice could be heard to that degree, then maybe mine could be heard to some extent as well,” Harrison told the News.

Harrison remembers one time when he encountered Petroulis playing music from a loudspeaker. Petrulis teased him about his music taste, and recommended it: “We Vibing,” a song by Harlem-based rapper Nino Man.

Harrison says he sometimes listens to the song and thinks about his friend. Harrison said the lyrics, which tell of rising out of poverty and surviving abuse, remind him of Petrolis.

“That’s what Grez was about,” he said. “He was a tough comer, and he made the best things happen.”

U-ACT’s slogan is “Emergency Tonight”.

Maggie Grether

Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness costs for the city office. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore at Ezra Stiles College.

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