Homeless man’s death offers somber reminder

After accepting help, 47-year-old opts to return to troubled lifestyle

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

The sign doesn't deter the homeless from setting up encampments.

The sign doesn’t deter the homeless from setting up encampments in areas that are difficult to access but offer some protection from the elements.

On Wednesday, March 5, a homeless man who ultimately rejected efforts to help him succumbed to chronic alcoholism in Kennett Township, according to the Chester County Coroner’s Office.

State police from the Avondale barracks responded to the discovery of the body of Martin Rodriguez-Gonzales, 47, near Mill and Cypress Roads about 7:45 a.m. The Coroner’s Office said he died of natural causes associated with his drinking problem.

Cpl. Maurice Nadachowski said Rodriguez-Gonzales resided in a makeshift shack with another man, who tried to wake Rodriguez-Gonzales that morning between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and realized he was dead. Nadachowki said the man then ran across the street to a beer distributor but couldn’t locate anyone so he flagged down a motorist pumping gas at a nearby station. The motorist dialed 9-1-1 and handed the phone to the roommate, Nadachowski said.

On an inhospitable tract littered with construction debris in Kennett Square, many have found materials to cobble together ramshackle residences.

On an inhospitable tract littered with construction debris in Kennett Township, many have found materials to cobble together ramshackle residences.

Nadachowski, who speaks Spanish, said he learned from the roommate that Rodriguez-Gonzales had a nephew in the area, and Nadachowski located him in Wilmington, De., so relatives could make arrangements to claim the body.

County officials say Rodriguez-Gonzales highlights the problems of dealing with people facing multiple challenges. Court records show a history of alcohol infractions for Rodriguez-Gonzales, dating from 2009 to 2012, with multiple arrests for public drunkenness in Kennett Square, Kennett and New Garden Townships during that time.

Izzy Gonzalez, the planning supervisor for the county’s Department of Community Development, said he met Rodriguez-Gonzales during the 2013 Point-in-Time Count, an annual, nationwide effort to locate the homeless. From last spring through the summer, Rodriguez-Gonzales seemed poised to become one of the county’s success stories.

Gonzalez said Rodriguez-Gonzales had been employed for years in the mushroom industry; however, a couple of car accidents prevented him from continuing to work, heaping financial woes on top of physical disabilities – and apparently exacerbating a drinking problem. Because Rodriguez-Gonzales was a legal permanent resident, he was entitled to assistance through various programs and began receiving it, Gonzalez said. “We would see him biking to services,” said Gonzalez.

Things started to deteriorate in the fall, Gonzalez said, explaining that Rodriguez-Gonzales stopped going to rehab and returned to his makeshift housing.

“When I heard the news that he died, I was devastated,” Gonzalez said.   He said he immediately went to the area where Rodriguez-Gonzales had lived, where he found some of Rodriguez-Gonzales’ homeless friends equally despondent over his death. Gonzalez said those sentiments were also shared by about a dozen service providers and social workers who had interacted with Rodriguez-Gonzales at places like Kennett Area Community Services (KACS), which runs the Kennett Food Cupboard.

“This is a very tragic situation,” said Michael Hackman, the administrator for the county’s Decade to Doorways, a 10-year plan to prevent and end homelessness in Chester County. “It speaks to the complexity of some of these cases. You have someone with physical injuries and economic challenges who engaged with providers and got services but who then chose to go back to his former lifestyle.”

Hackman said Rodriguez-Gonzales’ situation also serves as a somber reminder that Decade to Doorways is not a panacea. Hackman said outreach workers are trained to educate people about the services available, but ultimately they “have to respect the rights of a person to be where” they choose.  “You can’t rescue everybody,” he said. “You can’t force someone to get help.”

Gonzalez said Rodriguez-Gonzales’ death may end up assisting some of his homeless friends, who requested Gonzalez’ phone number when he visited on Wednesday. “My sense is that they are now motivated to get help,” he said, suggesting that they may want to avoid Rodriguez-Gonzales’ fate.

Hackman said he would like to see a regular outreach team added to the array of Decade to Doorways services, which include housing and job locators, so that weekly, maybe even daily, engagement can occur between service providers and residents in need of those services.

Gonzalez, the former head of La Comunidad Hispana in Kennett Square, said he’s been working with the homeless population his entire life. He said he believes that improvements in the county’s approach to preventing it will eventually succeed. “We’re gaining momentum,” he said, stressing the importance of community education and involvement. “I know we can do it.”

For more information on Decade to Doorways, visit www.decadetodoorways.org. A hotline for people in need of stable housing is available through ConnectPoints at 800-935-3181 or www.connectpoints.com.


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