Jenna Buccitelli was a mother and just 34 when she died in April – homeless on the streets of Buffalo for more than a year, struggling with mental illness and self-medicating herself with drugs and alcohol.
But outreach worker Holly Rutkowski refused to give up and bonded with Buccitelli, helping her as much as she could – to the point where the homeless woman would call Rutkowski’s cellphone or write from a hospital or jail. Their connection was strong, even though Buccitellli continued to struggle.
“Nobody wanted to deal with her. She was looked at as a burden to society, but if people would have taken the time to hear her story, she should not have died,” said Rutkowski, who sensed something was wrong when the letters and calls stopped coming in mid-April.
Later, she would learn that Buccitelli died.
She was one of nine homeless people who died this year in the Buffalo area. On Saturday evening, the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless commemorated National Homeless Memorial Day, held on the first day of winter.
“Each year, there are 40 to 50 John and Jane Does whose lives pass in our community without a proper memorial. Their bodies, without a name, go unclaimed at the Erie County Morgue,” said Carol Murphy, coalition co-chairwoman. “Our service providers knew nine of them well.”
One by one, the nine names – two of them were veterans – were read and a candle lighted in their memory. The service drew about 75 people to the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Hope Center on Paderewski Drive. Stories shared by those who had been homeless and service providers proved emotionally painful.
As Rutkowski, the former homeless outreach supervisor for the center, told Buccitelli’s story, tears streamed down her face and her voice broke.
“No one knew she had died. She had no contact with her family,” she said. “We have clients who die in abandoned houses or freeze to death.”
The memorial’s goal was to heighten awareness to the plight of the homeless – and the need to establish trust and meet with them – even beneath a bridge or in a park. Getting the homeless off the streets can prove difficult.
Harvey Brice, from Great Britain, who now lives in Buffalo, has pledged to help the homeless through outreach, even as he actively tries to keep up with his homeless brother’s whereabouts in England. He shared snippets of his brother’s story.
“It’s a very complex situation. We have learned how he spends his days, stays safe and gets meals,” Brice said. “We also learned that last Christmas, he spent in a hospital, because someone decided a homeless person should be beaten.”
Jason Hans, 35, who is legally blind, lived on the streets in 2011. His life began to fall apart when he was in his late 20s and drinking and drugs took over. He offered a message for the homeless: “Have faith, and keep fighting. Sometimes, it’s not necessarily one day at a time. It’s one minute at a time, said Hans, who begins working as a peer mentor next month. “You have to be truthful to providers. They can get you the help that you need.”