Death on the streets
Longtime Chicoan, homeless for at least five years, touched many lives
Thomas Avakian was a quiet man, reserved but well-read, a point he made often when people underestimated his mental acuity.
“He’d say, ‘You may be able to beat me up physically, but mentally, I’ve got you,’” said friend Robert Moffitt Jr. “He loved to debate people. If you said something happened at 8:36, he’d say, ‘No, it happened at 8:39. He’d say, ‘I’m a man who is factual.’”
Moffitt was standing on the sidewalk along West Sacramento Avenue in Chico, holding back tears as he talked about Avakian, who died there last week. He recalled that Tuesday morning (Jan. 23) clearly. As was his custom, he and some friends arrived at Tony’s Liquor sometime after it opened at 8 a.m. Only something was different—Avakian wasn’t there. Just up the street, near the Mechoopda cemetery, an ambulance arrived, and police were there. Moffitt hurried to catch up with one of the officers.
“They wouldn’t’a known who he was if I hadn’t showed up,” Moffitt said, shaking his head. “I said, ‘I just want to check on my friend.’ But he was gone.”
The next day, he spoke with Avakian’s mother. It was part of a ritual—every week, Moffitt would let Avakian use his phone to call his mom in Southern California. In some ways, then, Avakian was close to his family. Moffitt and others had heard stories of him living at the Torres Community Shelter years ago with a daughter. But though he spoke regularly with his parents, he would not take their help—or anyone else’s for that matter.
“We all make our choices in life,” Moffitt said. “At some point, if you want to get better, you’ve got to let that bottle—or whatever it is—go for a while. I got the feeling that Tom was sick, that he knew he was going to die. He wasn’t eating …. He told his mom a week or two ago that, ‘Everything is going to be OK soon.’”
Avakian isn’t the first homeless person to die on the streets of Chico, though numbers for this winter were not available by press time. Certainly, living without a roof as well as other amenities—access to showers, bathrooms, clean clothes and food, to name a few—increase one’s vulnerability.
For Avakian, 51, alcohol was his drug of choice. Moffitt said he was typically the first customer of the day at Tony’s Liquor at 8 a.m. He’d buy a tall boy and settle in with the newspaper along the fence near the car wash next door. That’s where Laurie Maloney first met Avakian, after seeing pictures of him and another man, outside Monstros Pizza, posted to Facebook page Chico First. Part of the caption reads, “I don’t understand why they are there most the time. Whether it’s them or others, always incredibly drunk and/or high.”
“You know how Facebook is these days,” Maloney said during a recent interview. “I feel like it’s just gotten worse.”
She was referring to the rants people post, many of them including photographs of individuals, negatively labeling them. She saw the photo of the people outside Monstros Pizza and, at the request of Chico First moderator Rob Berry, headed over there and introduced herself to Avakian.
“Tom was so interesting because so many people here knew him,” Maloney said. “He’d been here for 20 years, he worked at restaurants here ….”
She sat and talked with Avakian to get to know him, taking the photograph that accompanies this story as a way to offer a little humanity to this man who was previously labeled on social media as just another homeless drunk. She showed him that picture.
“He felt bad and said he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Maloney wrote in her follow-up post about Avakian. “He was sad to see the picture and told me, ‘I was just sleeping.’”
“Tom had been on and off the street here for the last 5 years and has lived in Chico since 1999,” she continued. “He was in the restaurant business and came up here to help with opening a new restaurant back then. The restaurant closed a few years back. He told me that he has friends and family that love him, but his pride won’t let him take financial help, and he doesn’t have any income now.
“When I walked up to him, he was reading the newspaper and told me he reads it every day. He isn’t out of touch, he just doesn’t have hope. So many need some hope!”
Maloney’s post sparked a lot of responses, including offerings of clothing and other help for Avakian. They weren’t the only ones willing to help. Moffitt said there were many people who cared about him, who offered him help. “He affected everyone’s life on this street,” he said with a smile.
Maloney agreed, commenting on how friendly Avakian had been on her arrival. For her, his story is a great reminder that homelessness “can happen to anybody” and why she and the Chico Posse Foundation go out of their way to post photos and bios of local homeless people on their Facebook page. “So many people don’t stop to find out their story,” she said.
For Moffitt, Avakian’s death is a sad ending—“I’m sad and mad, because he got to my heart,” he said. But he’s glad to know that he made a difference in the man’s life while he could.
“You have two dates in this life—you have your birth date, then you have a dash, and your death date. It’s what you do in between that matters,” he said. “At least I did something here, for him.”