MIAMI (CBS4) – Two city of Miami homeless outreach workers who often reached out to help Ronald Poppo described him as territorial who often sought shelter in a stairwell near Jungle Island, a popular tourist spot on Watson Island.
Giancarlo Venturini, was one of the two workers who had reached out to Poppo days before Poppo’s name became associated with an apparent cannibalistic-style attack that occurred on MacArthur Causeway earlier this year.
Venturini sat down with CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele Gillen to describe one of his meetings with Poppo.
“He wasn’t in his usual spot though. He was on the other side coming toward his usual spot,” Venturini said.
For the first time on television, Venturini and his partner Jairo Mesa take CBS4 cameras into the former world of Poppo, the homeless man they may know better than most.
When they offered to help Poppo relocate to a homeless shelter, they encountered resistance.
“Where were you when he got angry at you?” Gillen asked.
“Right here. Just right here!” both men replied.
On Memorial Day weekend, they and the world gasped at texted leaked photos of Poppo.
“Without a face,” Mesa said.
The same man who fought them in their efforts to help him off the streets.
“He tried to beat me, he tried to spit ( on) me,” Mesa said recalling Poppo’s reaction to their efforts. “Both of you go to hell. You die! He wanted to see me dead.”
The news of what happened to Poppo triggered disbelief.
“When I saw that picture. I say, ‘Ronald Poppo from Watson island? This is the guy, we know Poppo. I was in shock.”
Venturini added: “My partner said that’s Poppo. I said no way.”
But it was true.
“That’s Poppo. We know Poppo. Something cold from the bottom of my feet came up to my head,” Mesa said. “I feel like crying because I knew the man, I have a heart. That’s why I got this job to help people everyday. So, I was totally shocked, I was about to cry.”
It turns out it was Mesa and Venturini who on at least four occasions tried to get Poppo off the street and into a shelter.
“I told him you could be my grandpa. We are here to help you,” Mesa said.
Ron Book, serves as president of the Homeless Trust, a non-profit funded with tax dollars to address the needs of the homeless.
“When you heard this name, when your folks heard this name, and you got the news, oh my goodness, we just had interaction with him what did you think?” Gillen asked.
“It was one of those ‘Oh my God moments’ Michele,” Book said. “Within minutes of getting the name on Monday we knew we had seen the guy, we knew the guy had been in our system, we knew of him going back to 1999. We were aware of our outreach teams having had two contacts with Mr. Poppo the week before the attack.”
It was just days before the attack with assistance from police that the team finally got Poppo and his belongings out of this stairwell at Jungle Island’s parking lot. Already, it appears, someone else has already taken Poppo’s spot. The walls are marked by cryptic graffiti and ominous red flags.
When Poppo made his home here, there were concerns about his presence.
“Originally we were even alerted to his existence because he came into one of the cafe’s drunk demanding food. He scared off the patrons there,” Venturini said.
While they regret he ended up in an unfathomable nightmare, they say they believe they tried everything they could to help him.
“One of those times he said, ‘You don’t have no power to put me in jail.’ I said I don’t want you in jail I want to help you, I want you to go to a shelter,” Mesa said.
Poppo got a citation for trespassing and remained on the street.
And Book continues to work to keep the homeless out of jail with the hope of placing them in shelters saying it’s the best course.
“We have made a conscious decision to make no changes in how our outreach teams operate, how we coordinate with the police department. We don’t see anything that went wrong in our system,” Book said. “We could not have predicted a chronic guy would have run into a crazy drug-induced guy and results would be what they ended up being. You hope it’s a one-time tragedy.”
“The idea or notion that someday he might end up back on the street. That would be a compounded tragedy?” Gillen asked.
“That is not an acceptable option to me,” Book said. “That is not an outcome that I predict. That is not something I would find okay. There will come a point in time when our staff will re-engage.”
Venturini hopes a lasting effect might be that more homeless will realize the potential dangers of the street and come in. A price, they say, Poppo is paying all too dearly for.
“There is a lesson in it,” Venturini said.
“What would you like to say to him?” Gillen asked.
“Good luck man, Good luck,” Venturini replied.
Mesa says Poppo will be a reminder for him to try even harder with the next man or woman he encounters on the street who needs convincing there’s help available and that lives can change.
“I would like to go see him and talk to him,” Mesa said.
“What’s your hope for him?” Gillen asked.
“I mean he’s alive! That’s good! That’s wonderful. He’s not dead. Thanks God. He’s alive. (I want to tell him that ) We are here for him. We are here for him,” Mesa said.