New Milford Homeless Shelter Coalition, Inc.
Homeless 'gentle giant' mourned
Nanci G. Hutson
Updated 1:16 p.m., Tuesday, October 16, 2012
The tall, sandy-haired Princeton University graduate and one-time mechanical engineer strolled across the town green that summer day in 2001, nattily dressed in a suit and tie and toting a businessman's briefcase, she said. Roger never expected she would soon see him standing in line at the local soup kitchen on Main Street.
Over the years, the stark contrast from seemingly successful professional to "gentle giant'' living on society's fringe -- his earthly possessions pared down to a donated bicycle and a rolled-up sleeping bag, laundry detergent bottle, wooden pipe and tobacco pouch -- baffled and worried the volunteers and downtown folks he regularly encountered. Yet they accepted and respected him without reservation.
Likely one of the most visible of the town's not-so-visible homeless population, the 50-something man whose lens on life came from the green's park benches, local church steps and business vestibules died Friday at New Milford Hospital. Since summer, he had been undergoing treatment for a heart ailment.
"He lived life on his own terms, and I respect that," said Lisa Martin, president and director at Loaves & Fishes Hospitality House. "It does make me a little sad," Martin added. "I wish there had been something in place that could have helped him, but he wasn't into that. It was three years before I even knew his last name."
The day Rake died, a couple of homeless men salvaged a vase from a trash bin behind a local flower shop, then visited spots where Rake was known to sit with his bike, smoke his pipe and "watch the world go by," Martin and Roger said. There, they picked up leaves, greens and a few flowers to make a small memorial they placed at Loaves & Fishes.
New Milford and Danbury people who work with the homeless tried to find a place for Rake to live, but he rebuffed the efforts, Roger said. He has family, but he chose not to live with them.
Rake's sister, Ellen Monegan, of New Milford, declined comment. She said her brother treasured his privacy and would not appreciate being a newspaper headline. Rake has children, but no one interviewed knew details about them. Nor did they know where Rake grew up or lived before coming to New Milford.
Social Services Director Peg Molina is limited by confidentiality rules in what she can reveal. She did confirm Rake was someone to whom outreach efforts were extended but not always well received.
Twelve years ago, New Milford lost another well-known homeless man, James Purtell, who preferred a tent by the Housatonic River to conventional shelter. He died after he was hit by a truck while returning from dinner at Loaves & Fishes. Purtell's death led to the founding of the all-volunteer Shelter Coalition and a local emergency shelter run during cold weather in various churches.
One of Rake's mourners is Elaine Swanson, St. John's Episcopal Church parish secretary, who enjoyed a special friendship with Rake. He relied on the church as a home base, and its memorial garden, where he often slept hidden from prying eyes, will hold his cremated remains. It now has a makeshift memorial to him. Swanson said Rake was the church's unofficial watchman, reporting any suspicious activity or need for building repairs he noticed. She said he was always a gentleman, and she liked when he played classical music on the sanctuary piano.
On Saturday at 5:30 p.m., St. John's Episcopal Church will hold a memorial service for Rake.
"He touched lives and didn't even know he did," Martin said.
Did You Know?
Each year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness
On any given night 730,000 are looking for shelter
167, 000 (23%) of these are children
100,000 are veterans
Statistics taken from National Coalition for Homelessness
On any given night in Connecticut:
696 total people unsheltered in the woods, tents, cars
4465 people staying in shelters
844 children homeless children
Figures from 2011 PIT (Point in Time) from CCEH fact sheet.
In New Milford:
Last winter season (2010/2011) we saw a 100% increase in the number of unique clients served at our shelter (20 people vs. 10). Of the 20 served last season 16 were new to our shelter (never having stayed with us before). In addition in January 27, 2011 we counted 28 people during the Point in Time Count, and only 5 of those were staying at the shelter at that time.
It takes between 65-90 volunteers per year to staff the New Milford Shelter.