A Hard Life Under the Bridge: Death Could Bring Change

By Seth Daniel

Benjamin Estrada felt the Blizzard coming on last week, but after shoveling snow, he huddled up in some blankets under the Mystic/Tobin Bridge as he has done for years with a group of mostly Hispanic men that live on and off under the Bridge in the elements.

It was his last night under the Tobin, though.

By morning, Estrada was found by Chelsea Police, frozen to death where he lay.

The sad news has upset a lot of providers and homeless people in the City, with many wishing more could have been done for Estrada on that night, though he often refused help. It has brought the long-time homelessness problem in Chelsea under a larger microscope than it was already under, and caused a great deal of thinking to go on around what services the City should offer, and how to make those living outside take advantage of those services – even when they don’t want to.

Many said this week that Estrada was well-known throughout the City and had lived under the Bridge for years, but often would not go into a shelter when it was cold. Even when forced inside, he sometimes would later disappear.

Pastor Ruben Rodriguez, who has had a long-time ministry to the homeless and drug addicted in Chelsea, said Estrada was found on the morning of March 15.

“It’s very sad,” said Rodriguez. “He was an alcoholic. He had just got done shoveling and went to sit down and fell asleep and froze to death.”

Estrada, sadly, is not the first homeless man in recent years to freeze to death.

About three years ago, Jose Alvarez froze to death on Cherry Street, with little fanfare.

Rodriguez said he found another man during the last cold snap earlier this winter in the same spot where Estrada perished, his hands and feet frozen.

The big problem up for debate right now in the wake of Estrada’s death is how to reach those who won’t take help – even in situations where conditions are treacherous.

Dan Cortez, of the Chelsea Police community outreach, handles a lot of the outreach to the homeless through the Hub/Cor program. That program identifies potential problems and seeks to solve them before they boil over.

He said an amazing thing that has taken place is that many of the men who spent time under the Bridge with Estrada have been shaken enough that they are seeking help, where before they wouldn’t.

“Sometimes people in these conditions fade away and we’re trying to not let that happen with Benjamin,” he said. “We want to seize on this momentum and get people help. We are all really, really upset, but we’re going to try to honor his life by helping others.”

He said there is a program in Worcester that began under similar circumstances when a homeless man died in the cold some years ago.

There, they were able to rally the community to establish a home, a culinary school and job training.

“That’s what we want to do here,” he said.

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