Courtesy of Billy Bromage

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

Over 60 people gathered at Trinity Church on the Green on Friday — young and old, housed and unhoused, clad in a mix of black mourning and everyday wear — all with the shared purpose of commemorating Petrulis’ life.

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

At the memorial, family and friends remembered Petrulis as an advocate for New Haven’s unhoused community: bold and outspoken, funny and sometimes stubborn, devoted to New Haven’s unhoused community and unafraid to call out politicians on face-saving platitudes. 

“It’s an incredibly deep loss for us in so many ways,” Billy Bromage, who worked with Petrulis as a member of the unhoused activist organization U-ACT, told the News. “Just personally, but also in terms of the activist work we’re doing. The small, but hopefully powerful — or soon-to-be powerful — movement we’re building. It’s an immense hole for us.” 

Petrulis was a core member of U-ACT, which formed in New Haven last year. Petrulis helped shape the group’s central demands: that the city end evictions of unhoused people from public land, stop discarding unhoused people’s belongings and provide permanent public bathrooms and free public showers for all.

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

Having previously worked as a cook and bouncer at Toad’s Place, Petrulis had been unhoused since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A month before his death, Petrulis was evicted from a partially-sheltered area outside the Ninth Square apartment complex, where he had been living for over two years. 

According to Mark Colville, a long-time New Haven activist and member of U-ACT, Petrulis had received permission to sleep outside the Downtown New Haven apartment complex and was on good terms with several of the tenants who regularly talked with him and gave him food. 

In June, Petrulis awoke to a man taking pictures of him, Colville said. Someone in the building had called the police, and soon officers appeared and threatened to arrest Petrulis if he did not leave.

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

“If you want to talk, we can talk now; we can talk quiet, or we can talk loud,” Petrulis said into a megaphone in a YouTube recording of the protest. “I’m a human. You could have talked to me like the person that I am.” 

At the demonstration, Petrulis carried a sign that said “Stop Criminalizing Homelessness.” 

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

After losing his place to stay, Petrulis moved around every night searching for a place to sleep: some nights scrounging enough money to stay in a hotel, other nights sleeping in various public places downtown. 

In the weeks before he died, he began sleeping outside of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. 

“He felt very disrespected. He felt like he was treated in a subhuman way,” Bromage said.

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

“Remembering everything he said to me, it made me realize that if his voice could be heard to that degree, maybe my voice can be heard to a degree as well,” Harrison told the News.  

Harrison remembers one instance when he ran into Petrulis playing music from a speaker. Petrulis teased him for his music taste, and gave him a recommendation: “We Vibing,” a song by the Harlem-based rapper Nino Man. 

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

“That’s what Grizz was about,” he said. “He had a hard upcoming, and he made the best of things.”                                                           

U-ACT’s slogan is “the emergency is tonight.”

Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness for city desk. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college.