Santa Rosa homeless man’s dream cut short
By JULIE LEE / Special to Towns
After three years of newfound sobriety, hope and passion, Anthony “Tony” Haas, a homeless Santa Rosa Junior College culinary student, died June 18 from complications of alcoholism in a sleeping bag near the church garden he built. He was 60.
Until the last five weeks of his life, Haas had been living at the Redwood Gospel Mission’s transitional facility, but the mission lost contact after his relapse into alcohol. He was found dead near the kitchen garden he built behind Sonoma Avenue Church of Christ, where he worshiped.
“That always really broke my heart, that he went back to the place where he felt most comfortable and at home, where he had cooked and planted this wonderful garden,” said Michael Tiemann, 61, the mission’s director of industrial ministries. “That’s where he lay down.”
Although Haas is now at rest, his name lives on through the SRJC culinary arts department’s upcoming Haas Scholarship, which will help students who are homeless or experiencing similar hardships. The first fundraiser is a memorial dinner to be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Culinary Center.
Members of the Culinary Cubs, a student club, will prepare many items for the casual buffet-style dinner, including bread baked from the starter Haas left behind, in the Mugnaini wood-fired oven he loved so dearly. No alcohol will be served.
With no previous culinary experience, Haas discovered his passion for cooking shortly after his arrival at the Mission in 2011. There he learned kitchen skills and prepared meals for more than 300 people a day through the shelter’s New Life program, a 10- to 18-month recovery program for men with life-controlling issues.
He eventually became a state-certified food safety manager and decided to pursue his career change at SRJC. He was one class short of receiving his cafe certificate, which he had planned to complete this summer.
Culinary arts department Chairman Jim Cason, 53, said Haas had been a continuously curious and driven student since his enrollment in fall 2012.
“Tony came to it with a complete open mind and along the way discovered that he liked fire and the wood-burning oven. He had a feel for it,” Carson said. Haas became so adept that he could determine the desired temperature simply by putting his fist in the front of the oven.
“When he got into something, he couldn’t go 99 percent with it,” Tiemann said. “You could talk to him for an hour about butter — what you would mix with certain butters and grains that hadn’t been used since the 14th century, and how he was going to get them shipped from Romania and make this bread that hadn’t been made since the Middle Ages — and you just go, ‘What?’ But he loved it.”
Tiemann vouched not only for Haas’ enthusiasm but also the quality of his baked goods. “You could sit there with a pound of butter and eat a loaf of bread, they were that delicious,” he said. “After a while, I had to tell him, ‘Don’t come by my office with the fresh bread anymore. I’m gaining weight, and I can’t keep my diet. Please, just take it to the break room.”
Executive Director Jeff Gilman, 55, added with a chuckle, “But he always had to share it with everybody.”
SRJC chef/instructor Roger Praplan, 58, visits the Mission every other week as part of the Railroad Square homeless task force and saw Haas coming out of the mission. “It all clicked in my head exactly why he was there, but that was his business,” Praplan said.
“Whatever he was doing at school was totally separate.”
Nonetheless, he recognized the exceptional sacrifices Haas made for his education. “He opted to be homeless, meaning, not having to worry about paying for an apartment. That way he had money to pay for school,” Praplan said. “It’s his dedication of wanting to be a cook that’s quite impressive to me.”
Most of Haas’ classmates found out about his living situation only after his death.
Fellow student Sarah Ruffino, 31, said Haas mentioned the mission in passing conversation, but instead she recalled his kind, cooperative disposition. “He was like the grandpa everybody wanted,” said Ruffino, who is executive chef of the memorial dinner and Culinary Cubs president.
New Life graduate Matt Sutton, 38, worked alongside Haas in the mission kitchen and described him as a hardened yet selfless man.
“A lot of the guys here didn’t have a relationship with (their) fathers,” Sutton said. “They looked up to him for that reason, and he did take on that fatherly or grandfatherly role to a lot of people.”
The mission’s Gilman, who first met Haas on the streets in 1996, said, “He was always there, always cleaning, always ready to work, always in a good mood. He never complained, yet he had all these (stressors) that he just didn’t carry around with him.”
Born in San Francisco, Haas lost his father to cancer when he was 5. Due to early-onset alcohol abuse and erratic behavior, Haas was estranged from his mother and three siblings. It is unclear how he came to Santa Rosa and why he stayed.
Haas lived intermittently with a family named Skyles, but he spent most of 20 years on the streets of Santa Rosa. Haas did not share many details about his past. As the mission program’s name suggests, he had begun a new life, one that lasted three years.
“When he came to Redwood Gospel Mission, he was learning how to build relationships with people and having a mentor, sponsor and a church family here,” said Julie Acuna, 46, the mission’s production and procurement manager.
“It was all brand new to him because of how he was brought up, how he brought himself up,” added mission Director of Men’s Ministries Chris Keys, 39. “That’s especially hard for someone who is 60 years old (and) has not relied on anything like that their entire life. But he did grasp it. He did, like with everything else, go all in.”
Haas worshiped at the Sonoma Avenue Church of Christ, which has a strong affiliation with the mission, and each week he arrived early to bake a big brunch to serve between Sunday school class and the church service. To supply fresh herbs and produce for the brunches, he built and maintained a vegetable garden behind the church.
“He just loved to make people happy that way. That’s where he found his happy place, gardening at the church, baking food for people, preparing things,” Keys said.
While most of his new friends saw Haas as a jovial, grandfatherly person, Gilman knew another side of him. “When he was using (alcohol), he was the most miserable of souls, angry and bitter. We couldn’t reason with him,” Gilman said.
One night, when an intoxicated Haas was about to drive his newly acquired car, Keys confiscated the key. That was the last time Haas was seen at the mission, Gilman said.
SRJC’s Cason suggests that professional setbacks likely triggered Haas’ final relapse. From among three job offers, he chose one that did not meet his expectations and quit after a week. Another restaurant tried Haas in a position for which he was not suited and ultimately did not hire him.
“Whenever anyone had an issue, he wanted to help them, calm ‘em down, saying, ‘Not all those things are that hard in life,’ ” Praplan said. “He should’ve kept that word, too.”
However unfortunate his death, Gilman said, Haas’ road to recovery remains inspirational. “We saw a man who for three years had hope and sobriety in a life that had never experienced such things.”
Haas was among an estimated 9,759 people in Sonoma County without homes, according to the 2013 Homeless Point-in-Time Census and Survey.
“What I learned from Tony was that when marginalized people get an opportunity, they add so much and give back so much to the community,” Tiemann said.
“There are thousands of Tonys in this town, men and women (to whom) we want to afford the opportunity to come into the light, live a good life and find hope.”
The Tony Haas Memorial Dinner starts 7 p.m. Tuesday at SRJC Culinary Arts Center, 1670 Mendocino Ave. Tickets are $40 at brownpapertickets.com; proceeds benefit a culinary scholarship in his name.