Quinnipiac Community Action Project spotlights homelessness

Lily Philipczak, Staff Writer

Quinnipiac University’s Community Action Project Hunger and Homeless Branch sponsored an event with speakers from Hands on Hartford on March 1. Speakers shared their stories to destigmatize homelessness and give others a new perspective on the social and systemic issue.

Hands on Hartford is a non-profit organization in Hartford, Connecticut, that focuses on providing food, housing and health services to members of the community in need. The organization’s Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau is a group of individuals who experienced or continue to go through homelessness.

Geoff Luxenberg, community engagement manager for Hands On Hartford, spoke about the non-profit and introduced the speakers.

“We find when audiences hear from someone’s lived experience that it really changes the way people think about the problem of homelessness, and often inspires people to take action, whether that’s political activism, or advocacy work, or wanting to volunteer or become more philanthropic,” Luxenberg said.

Joe Krystofalski (left) and Ralph Gagliardo shared their experiences with homelessness at a Quinnipiac University event on March 1. (Lily Philipczak)

Joe Krystofalski, one of the event speakers, said he had a normal childhood growing up in Meriden, Connecticut. When he was 8 years old, he began bussing tables at his uncle’s restaurant, marking the beginning of his fifty-year work history. He graduated high school and went to attend Central Connecticut State University.

“My brother got sick with cancer … my father said to me, ‘You need to leave school because we’re taking your brother and his family,’” Krystofalski said. “Back in ‘79 through ‘82, when my brother did come to live with us, my father on one paycheck and me working part time was able to take care of two families, which says a lot about the economy now.”

Krystofalski described his first experience with homelessness as “doubled-up homelessness.” The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines doubled-up homelessness is temporary shared housing with friends and family due to various crises. According to the Department of Education, one million children across the United States in public schools are experiencing homelessness.

In summer 2010, Krystofalski was working at a warehouse and was injured by a forklift. Even with physical therapy, he was badly injured and was unable to do the physical aspect of the warehouse job.

Soon, Krystofalski received a termination letter. He spent months filing back and forth for unemployment and workman’s compensation. After never having an issue paying rent on time, Krystofalski was evicted in May 2011. He sold his car, put his belongings in a storage unit and lived in a motel for six weeks.

“Now you may say we weren’t homeless. This is true. I had a roof over my head but I still had no stable housing,” Krystofalski said. “You take a lot of things for granted that you don’t think about … It’s kind of eye opening but I still didn’t get discouraged. I said to myself, ‘I’ll be okay, something’s gonna break.’”

Both Krystofalski and Ralph Gagliardo, another speaker, experienced homelessness despite their hard work, but Gagliardo’s story was different as it involved addiction. After graduating high school, Gagliardo said he wanted to be an entrepreneur and went into the auto body shop business. However, Gagliardo sustained a back injury. His doctor prescribed him pain medication and neglected to tell him about the side effects and possibility of addiction.

Gagliardo said he became a functioning addict for several years, while continuing to work. When his doctor stopped prescribing the medication, he struggled to function and a colleague suggested Gagliardo try heroin.

“I was on my way down,” Gagliardo said. “So with all the time it took me to gain all these things, it took me no time at all to lose everything and I mean eventually I found myself and my family disgusted. They didn’t understand it – addiction.”

Gagliardo shared his experience overdosing on ketamine that was sold as heroin and detoxing in a jail for three days. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, people who are homeless have a higher risk of overdose from illicit substances.

“You don’t know what you’re getting. You’re gambling with your life,” Gagliardo said about his encounter with street drugs. “You’re rolling the dice every time you go out there. You don’t know what can happen.”

Gagliardo said he was resourceful during his time of incarceration. While incarcerated, he wrote letters and poetry for inmates, including a letter to a judge that took six months off another’s sentence.

Gagliardo’s life changed when he was arrested on a Friday night.

“I had an epiphany,” Gaglirado said. “And I knew that no matter what happened, that there was no turning back, that I was gonna get clean. I was gonna stay clean. It was just too dangerous. The game was over.”

Gagliardo went on to write for Beat of the Street, a newspaper which empowers individuals who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness, and earned an associate’s degree in human services from Goodwin College.

When asked during the Q&A session what advice they would give to someone facing homelessness, both said not to be afraid of asking for help, swallow your pride and do not lose hope.

“If you see someone on the street as disheveled and homeless and asking for money or begging, if you don’t want to give money you don’t want to get food that’s fine,” Krystofalski said. “At least look at them and validate their humanity.”