After homeless man and his dog rescued from cold in East Haven, an outpouring of support

A homeless man and his dog are living temporarily in an East Haven hotel, courtesy of generous donors who came together to help him after an emergency on Wednesday night.

Martin Lillis and his 8-year-old boxer, Roxie, were living in Lillis’ car, which was parked for the night on Wednesday at the Stop & Shop in East Haven.

“The car didn’t have any heat. I put thick blankets over ourselves. There was ice on the windows and I was trying to scrape ‘SOS’ in the ice. I was trying so hard, using all my strength, trying to pass whatever test God was giving me,” Lillis said in a phone interview from his hotel room.

“But I was shivering and I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided, I can’t let her live like this. So I called 911.”

Lillis called at 2 a.m. Police came and took Lillis to the hospital, as a safeguard against hypothermia. Emily Higgins, a town animal control officer, came and took Roxie to the animal shelter.

On Thursday afternoon, Lillis left the hospital and went to the shelter to get Roxie. Higgins tried to find him a place he could go that took dogs. She had no luck. Then she had a brainstorm.

“I had taken trip to Florida a couple years ago with friends. We stayed at a Quality Inn. They gave us some points. I never thought about using them again,” Higgins said.

Higgins knew that Quality Inn in East Haven allowed dogs. “I thought, this could get me a few bucks off a hotel room for a couple of nights,” she said.

After the points were figured, the bill for two nights was $227. Higgins paid it.

More good luck

That wasn’t the end of Lillis’ turn of good fortune. A story posted on the Facebook page of East Haven Patch alerted the community on Thursday to Lillis’ plight. A local Realtor, Jean Gagliardi, commented that people should raise money for Lillis. Higgins contacted Gagliardi on Friday morning.

“I couldn’t start a Gofundme myself because I am a town worker and I have to set boundaries,” Higgins said.

So Gagliardi started it. Within two and a half hours, the Gofundme’s $2,000 goal had been exceeded by $1,000. And the money kept flowing in.

“People are coming out of the woodwork. It’s crazy. About half from East Haven, and the rest from all over,” Gagliardi said. “It’s amazing. This is just human kindness.”

The community has been helping Lillis through the hotel, too. Nichal Desai, general manager of the Quality Inn, said the hotel was “overwhelmed with responses” from people who wanted to donate to extend Lillis’ stay.

“We’ve been adding and adding to his reservation. For now, he is all set for the next 10 to 14 nights. One generous woman paid for a whole week,” Desai said.

Gagliardi said that the Gofundme money will go directly to Lillis. “It’s in an account that only he can access,” she said.

Higgins is delighted with the community response. “It makes my heart feel good that he will be taken care of,” she said.

Lillis called Higgins “the angel of my life. ... I will love her forever.”


Lillis, who lives on disability, and Roxie have have been homeless for many months. It started when his mother died.

“I lost my home. She had a reverse mortgage. I had a little bit of time to find someplace else to live. I was down to the wire and had one more week to get out of there,” he said. “I went to church to pray that something would happen so I wouldn’t be on the street.”

He ran into his old middle-school teacher at church. The teacher offered to let him live in a place he had for $400 a month. It was perfect, as Lillis lives on a $914 a month disability payment.

“I filled out an application to live in Bella Vista, a Section 8 apartment building. There was a three-year waiting list,” he said. “I had a contract to stay [in the teacher’s home] for three years while I waited.”

Six months before the three-year waiting period ended — when the place where he lived had been sold to another owner — he contacted Bella Vista.

“They had thrown my application out. I was flabbergasted. They said I didn’t call them to tell them I still wanted the apartment,” he said. “I told them, do you realize I’m going to be homeless?”

Another apartment didn’t work out, so he began living in a U-Haul truck with Roxie. He couldn’t get an extension on the U-Haul rental, so he began living in his car.

“I had spent all my money from SSI. I had nothing left,” he said. He began parking at Stop & Shop at night, which led to his dilemma this week.

Lillis does not know what the future holds for him and Roxie. He is just grateful for the here and now.

“Roxie is so happy. We got twin beds. She got her own bed. She is sleeping in the bed right now,” he said. “The main thing is that we are warm. I never felt such cold in my life.”

To donate to the Gofundme, search “Share the LOVE” on

Susan Dunne can be reached at