UNION — Last month, Clinton Kelley was homeless. On Tuesday night, supporters were throwing him a dinner at Rio Rodizio on Route 22 to celebrate getting him back on his feet and into a permanent home. Last month, they were strangers.
April Stec, a single mom in Westfield, met the man she now calls “Uncle Clinton” sitting on a bench in front of the city hall of Linden — her home town. Over time, she got to know him and learn his story. In early August, she and her boyfriend, Brian Gorczyca saw that he had been beaten, again, and was in severe distress.
“I asked how he is and if he needed anything and he said, ‘I’m hungry. I’m very, very hungry,’” Stec recalled. She and Gorczyca brought him to a hospital, Stec said. Since that day, they and others from the community have rallied to help Kelley get back on his feet.
Stec posted a photo of Kelley on a Linden Facebook group asking for help and soon they had their own page, Help Clinton Kelley of Linden.
Others soon got her in touch with Helping Other People Everyday (H.O.P.E), an 800-member volunteer aid organization whose members communicate via Facebook. The group is led by Henry Giarnieri of Linden with volunteer leaders including Kristina Martinez and June Lazaro. In addition, they got help from Linden PBA President Joseph Birch, as well as a Social Services worker.
Together they formed an inner circle to coordinate a relief effort.
Donors saw the Facebook posting and provided clothes, food, money and services. Sometimes he stayed with Stec. They got him a room at a hotel for a week. When Kelley could not get his foot over the tub wall to bathe himself Lazaro, a former nurse, offered assistance.
“How could I tell my husband I was going to a hotel to bathe a homeless man I had never met before?” she recalled, smiling, but later said that her husband supported her choice. She gave Kelley a waist-up bathing.
Lazaro arranged for her son and granddaughter to send get-well cards to Kelley. Martinez gave Kelley a haircut. He asked for a Mohawk, his “trade signature.”
Their Facebook page was seen by Kelley’s daughter, who he had lost touch with during his four years of living on the streets. Kelley now has a train ticket to North Carolina, where he plans to live with her, paid for by the Police Benevolent Association of Linden.
“You can’t give up”
Kelley spoke candidly about life as a homeless man. Up until four years ago, he was a productive member of society, holding jobs, supporting himself and a family, but a slew of unfortunate events around 2011 left him destitute, he said.
Kelley said he was born in 1956 in Salisbury, MD. From age 8 to 15, he lived in foster homes. His first marriage ended after three years. His second marriage to a school teacher lasted for 27 years.
He worked as a landscaper and tree trimmer doing arduous, dangerous work — climbing trees with ropes, pruning branches with chainsaws — for a tree company based in Kenilworth, Kelley said. Once, he had a finger sewed back on.
Kelley’s spiral into homelessness began in 2011 when he was hit by a car and dragged a short distance, he explained. He lost his job. His wife divorced him. He lived with one of his daughters for a while but there was no work, so he returned to New Jersey where he found some landscaping work, but the pay was not enough for him to afford a place to live.
In less than a year, he was homeless.
Without shelter, physical danger surrounded him, Kelley said. He described one night, while he camped out behind a CVS in Linden, when two thugs assaulted him. When they learned he had only two dollars in his pocket, they beat him severely, pummeling him against steel barriers that were placed to prevent cars from hitting the building. Two hips were broken and a knee, as well. Kelley said that he spent 27 days in the hospital that time. He has a titanium plate and two steel rods in his body.
He recalled one mugging when he was thrown over an eight-foot railing near an overpass, and then dropped 15 feet. He was trapped in cold water up to his knees for several hours, calling for help. Linden police and fire officials extricated him, he said.
During one attack, all of his contact information was taken from him. He lost the phone number and address of his daughter in North Carolina, as well as important identifying documents.
He remembers cold winters when he thought he would freeze to death. He said he was taken by ambulance to an emergency room and put under warming blankets. He remembers being told that his heart had stopped and that emergency doctors revived him.
Kelley said he never gave up.
“You can’t give up. You can’t stop believing in God,” he said.
He tried to form friendships with other homeless people. He recalled a woman named Barbara who he would sit with sometimes. When Kelley was given a sandwich, he would split it with her; later, he said, when Barbara got a tiny subsidized one-room rooming house apartment, she stopped talking to him. Still, Kelley said that there is an ethic among the homeless to help each other out.
“You share when you’re homeless,” he explained.
He depended on kind people to offer food, and there were long stretches when he had little or nothing to eat. Some organizations will only give you free food if you have an address, he said.
“I got used to not eating all the time,” he said.
Sometimes passersby would offer alcohol instead of food. He said he has had his difficulties with alcoholism.
When food was being given out, Kelley often had trouble getting to it. With no money for a bus ticket, in the cold, hungry, beset with injuries, it was hard for him walk to soup kitchens.
He found a safer location, finally, at a bench in front of the Linden City Hall near the police station. That is where he met Stec, who brought him a hot homemade meal.
“How can I repay you?” he asked her.
He told her a joke and she laughed. Over time, she came to see him as a good person who had fallen on tough times.
Stec’s friendship and support was vital in his transition from homelessness, Kelley said.
At the celebration at Rio Rodizio Wedesday, he was groomed, outfitted in nice clothes with a cane and glasses. Kelley could walk, with a cane. The Social Services worker had helped him get new identification documents, with an all-important copy of his social security card.
Stec was hopeful.
"I would be surprised if he returned to being homeless, and would be disappointed,” she said. “But I think he's going to make it this time."
Through her contacts via Sports Fan Promotions, Stec got retired Giants footballer Sean Landeta to attend the sendoff dinner for Kelley. The brawny footballer sat behind a trophy studded table, cranking out signatures on 40-dollar footballs and shiny helmets. Kelley posed for pictures with the Super Bowl star. Landeta had two Super Bowl rings, and they both wore a ring for a photo.
That night, supporter Martinez said that she finally met Lazaro for the first time, though they had been messaging back and forth for weeks. They recognized each other from their Facebook photos.
It was Martinez who was first contacted by Kelley’s daughter Karen after she saw her father on Facebook. Martinez put father and daughter on the phone and they spoke for the first time in years.
Kelley was pleased and grateful that so many people worked together to make his escape from misery possible. Back in July, he never would have dreamed it was possible.
“I did not believe that anybody would help me,” Kelley said.