Like many people in New York, Hakki Akdeniz was taken aback when he heard about the brutal killing of four homeless people in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan last week.
After he heard the news, he rushed to the area where the bodies were found, blood still visible on the ground.
“I was just shocked,” said Akdeniz, who was once homeless himself.
Since the tragedy, he’s visited the site daily, leaving candles and flowers in memory of the men that died, and a stack of boxes with fresh pizza for the homeless people in the neighborhood.
At his memorials, Akdeniz left a heartfelt letter, expressing sympathy for the community and sorrow that he wasn’t there to protect the men who were killed.
Akdeniz, 39, is the owner of a local pizza shop chain, Champion Pizza. He is known for the impressive tricks he does while making pizza, but also for his dedication to helping the homeless community. He often gives out free slices at his restaurants and hands out food and clothes every Monday and Wednesday.
Several years ago, he started paying a local gym a monthly fee to allow several people a day to get showers, and regularly takes groups to a barber shop to get a trim.
Akdeniz’s desire to help the homeless community is rooted in his own experience being homeless when he first moved to the United States in 2001.
His own experience with homelessness
Akdeniz, originally from Turkey, moved to Canada when he was a teenager and then to New York in January 2001. With $240 in his pocket and his housing falling through, he slept at a $30 a night motel. When his money ran out, he slept in subway stations.
“I had big hopes, a big dream. I had a goal,” Akdeniz said. “But sometimes hope is not enough to reach your goal.”
For a while he stayed in a shelter downtown, traveling to pizza places during the day, trying to find a job. At the time, his English wasn’t great, and he had trouble getting someone to hire him.
Eventually, he got a job at a Mediterranean restaurant across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. But he couldn’t afford the train fare back to the shelter and ended up sleeping on the bench across the street from the restaurant.
A couple months later, he started cleaning a building in Queens in exchange for a small spot to sleep in the building’s basement.
“It wasn’t easy,” Akdeniz said tearfully.
A year later, he finally saved up enough money to rent an apartment with a friend.
A place of his own
Over the years, he worked at several pizza restaurants, saving up money to eventually open in his own shop and fulfill what he describes as the American dream.
In the last days of 2009, Akdeniz opened his first shop in the Lower Manhattan. At first, business was tough, and he often slept under his oven in the shop to save money.
“When I first opened, people didn’t want to buy pizza from a Turkish guy,” Akdeniz said. “They wanted a real Italian guy.”
Akdeniz started entering pizza competitions, building up his repertoire of tricks and eventually winning first place in a local competition. The popularity of the restaurant skyrocketed, giving him enough money to open a second location. He now has seven locations in the New York City area.
Helping the community
So, when a homeless man allegedly killed four other homeless men and severely beat a fifth in Chinatown, it struck a chord for Akdeniz.
“Homeless people are the most innocent people, they are powerless,” said Akdeniz. “They have nothing.”
New York Police arrested 24-year-old Randy Rodriguez Santos in connection with the killings. He has since been charged with four counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and possession of marijuana, according to NYPD Detective Ahmed Nasser.
Given his own Kurdish background and the recent conflict in Syria, Akdeniz expressed his frustration with what often feels like senseless killing.
“I’m not political, but you cannot kill people. We need to support each other. We are killing each other for nothing,” he said.
Akdeniz said that he hopes people are kinder to homeless people and sympathetic towards the situation they’re in. Even just giving someone $10 will help, he said.