Neighbors along Utica block: ‘We’re all family here’

Angelica A. Morrison

Tuesday night’s fire at 1138 Whitesboro St. might have killed four people, but it didn’t weaken the bonds in the city’s community of hundreds of down-and-out residents. 

If anything, the tragedy highlighted the strengths of those connections for area residents who often have little reason to pay attention to the lives of the homeless, the disabled or the simply troubled. 

"I lost my best friend,” said Willis A. Williams Jr., speaking Wednesday about one of the deceased. Williams is a resident of 1134 Whitesboro St., a rooming-type house similar to the neighboring structure that burned. 

Many of the people living in these houses fall so far outside the government safety net that the fire-scene residence was not even licensed with the Oneida County Department of Social Services. 

Many of the residents survive instead through the charity of religious organizations focused on helping the neediest in society. 

The Rev. George Dodd, pastor of Calvary Gospel Church in New York Mills, would drive a van to the houses on this West Utica block to pick up the residents and take them to a breakfast ministry on Sunset Avenue in Utica where the church operates its “My Father’s House Ministry.” 

“It was shocking and painful because I had breakfast with these guys for the past several years,” he said. “We are trying to find out who they are. We may know some of them.” 

Rescue Mission clients

The morning after the fire, the air in front of the property was brisk and scented with the odor of charred wood. Williams, along with other residents, sat outside, chatting and watching fire officials conduct their work. 

“We’re all family here,” said Norman Talerico, 47. “I’m really upset about it. It was terrible. I was scared.” 

“I wish I could save my friends,” said Roy Spears, 54, speaking of the deceased, none of which have been identified publicly by authorities. 

His friends might have been members of the Rescue Mission of Utica’s Representative-Payee Program, said the Rev. William Dodge, executive director for the Mission. 

Most of the people in that house were participants of the program, which exists to help people manage their finances, Dodge said. “It’s to help them avoid being exploited by others.” 

In all, there are some 600 participants in the program. 

Neither the 1138 Whitesboro St. residence nor other rooming-type homes in the neighborhood owned by Donna Marano of Cold Brook are licensed formally as group homes, Oneida County Social Services Commissioner Lucille A. Soldato said. 

“It’s not certified, it’s not licensed, it’s not part of any program,” Soldato said. “There is no county involvement. Actually at this point, we do not have anyone there or referred anyone there.” 

That’s where agencies such as the Rescue Mission have stepped in. 

In the wake of the fire, the Mission has provided clothing for the displaced residents and is helping in the search for the deceased’s next of kin, Dodge said. The American Red Cross is also helping displaced residents. 

“It’s very sad,” Dodge said. “We’re very broken up.” 

A resident’s story

Some of the people who live in the Whitesboro Street homes owned by Marano stayed for a brief time at the Rescue Mission, he said. 

One such person, is Tom Kozdra, who survived the fire. 

Kozdra, who has been diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, said he took his medication and went to sleep around 7 p.m. Tuesday. 

“I settled in, I never really expected what was about to happen,” he said. “I was caught, really, unprepared.” 

He said he was a collector of magazines and records that are now lost in the fire. He also played guitar. 

“I lost that, too,” he said. “You can’t do anything about it, except go on.”