BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Arturo was a lover. When he would see Erica Star Robbins across Linn Park in Birmingham, he’d speed over to her on his wheelchair, a smile stretched across his face. He’d ask her to marry him – not an unusual occurrence – and then he’d turn to the person next to Erica and ask them, too, for their hand in marriage. “There’s enough of me to go around,” he’d say. 

Arturo Fortunell, a double amputee and undocumented resident of Birmingham, had faced street homelessness for years. On Saturday, Fortunell was found unresponsive in the bushes near the Rainbow Bridge by Railroad Park where he often slept. He did not survive. Questions about the death sent to Jefferson County Coroner’s Office by CBS 42 have not yet been answered. 

Erica Star Robbins, founder of Be A Blessing Birmingham, a local nonprofit that provides services to the unhoused community in the city, said Arturo’s death was devastating for those who knew him. His death, Robbins said, should be devastating for every person in the City of Birmingham. And she’s on a mission: to provide Arturo a deserving burial, a memorial service in Linn Park, and a legacy worthy of his memory. Robbins said Arturo’s death has been a catalyst to move forward with a project called “Lots of Love,” something she hopes will help provide some stability for those in Birmingham still facing the difficulties Arturo knew all too well. 

Getting to know Arturo

Robbins always told Arturo that he should be in the Paralympics. His attitude was always positive, despite the constant adversity he faced. He was always ready for a challenge. And he was fast. Robbins said she was often stunned by the speed with which Arturo could get to her, calling her name from a football field away but then appearing in front of her before she could even respond. 

Arturo and Erica (Courtesy of Erica Robbins)

“How you doing?” he’d ask her. “I haven’t seen you in a couple of days.”

She’d ask if he’d eaten, and he’d usually say no.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” she’d tell him. And they would. But before she knew it, as quick as he’d come, he’d be gone, smile and all, off to brighten someone else’s day.

Felicia Scalzetti, Arturo’s friend and a community organizer, said Arturo’s Birmingham friends don’t even have a way to contact his family in Mexico who may not know he’s passed. But they said they’ll remember him for the caring person he was.

“Arturo was special,” Scalzetti said, “and I’m not just saying that because he proposed to me five minutes after we met. He was always brimming with joy, had an infectious smile that lit everyone else up, and was just one of those people you always looked around for.”

The battle for mobility

Robbins said Arturo was often targeted on the streets because of his small stature. His chair, made for his small size, was stolen from him twice. 

The first time, in 2019, Arturo was robbed of all his belongings, including his wheelchair. Cat Cruz, a local volunteer and former homelessness worker, remembered Arturo telling her about the incident. Arturo’s attackers had beaten him down and thrown him in the bushes.

Arturo Fortunell
(Courtesy of Erica Robbins)

“He was there in the bushes for a few days until the cops found him,” Cruz said. “He was all bit up and very upset.”

Cruz, Robbins and others found Arturo a replacement chair and gave it to him in Linn Park. He was excited, thanking them for their help and the freedom it brought him. Cruz said she can still remember the expression on his face.

Then, toward the end of April 2022, Cruz received a call from a former colleague telling her that Arturo was in front of a local business and wouldn’t talk to anyone. People were calling the police on Arturo, her colleague said, and he was asking for her by name.

Cruz went down to find out what was going on. Arturo’s wheelchair had been stolen again, and his hand had been injured in the fight. 

“He was completely defenseless,” Cruz said.

For a second time, local organizers worked to replace the wheelchair. Two days before his death, they had managed to get him a new one. Once again, Arturo was overwhelmed with gratitude. 

“He had the exact same expression on his face,” Cruz said.

But now, just days later, Cruz and Robbins are coping with the reality that Arturo will never use the chair again. 

Arturo’s legacy

Cat Cruz found out Arturo had died Saturday morning after his campmate found him unresponsive. 

When she got the call, Cruz said she knew something was wrong. 

“But I wasn’t prepared for it to be him,” she said. 

It was. Arturo Fortunell, a loved resident of the Magic City, was gone. 

Arturo’s empty wheelchair under the Rainbow Bridge in Birmingham. (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

“It’s been really rough,” Robbins said of the days since Arturo’s passing. But she’s found motivation in the misery.

“I don’t want another neighbor – another human being – found dead,” Robbins said. “I don’t want another neighbor treated like trash, like just litter thrown out the window. They’re human, just like us.”

So Robbins is focused on three goals. She wants to provide Arturo a proper burial and hold a memorial for him in Linn Park, a place he often called home. 

“I don’t want him just put in a pauper’s grave because he had family,” Robbins said. “We are his family.”

She said holding a remembrance in Linn Park would allow those who knew Arturo during his time on the streets of Birmingham to pay their respects. 

“I want there to be food and music,” she said. “He loved music. He’d be dancing in his wheelchair. He was always just so happy. I just want folks to know that he was and still is loved.”

But Robbins said that Arturo’s legacy should be more than just a brief memorial. In addition to raising funds for Arturo’s burial and service, Robbins is fundraising to provide “Lots of Love” in his memory.

“We want to purchase empty lots in different areas and put love into those lots,” Robbins said. 

Erica Star Robbins stands with Arturo’a empty wheelchair in Birmingham (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

The lots would be developed to provide shelter for those facing homelessness in the city who may find it difficult, for various reasons, to take advantage of traditional housing programs or congregate shelters.

Arturo, for example, was undocumented, a reality that made it difficult for him to receive services accessible to others. Often, people like Arturo slip through the holes of the social safety net, something Robbins said must be addressed systematically, not just on an individual basis. 

A man and woman facing homelessness lay under the Rainbow Bridge in Birmingham (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

According to the point-in-time count, a federally mandated survey of individuals facing homelessness, around 875 people faced homelessness in the Birmingham area on any given night in 2021, over 300 of which had no shelter at all. A significant number of those facing homelessness – over 100 – are veterans. The majority of people facing homelessness in the Birmingham area (60%) are people of color. And experts say that these numbers are likely to be an undercount because of factors including the federal government’s limited definition of homelessness and the difficulty of locating individuals who may not necessarily want to be found. 

Erica Star Robbins hopes that individuals across the Magic City will step in where she said city leaders have failed. She’s asking that anyone who wants to honor Arturo’s memory, or anyone who simply wants to help their vulnerable neighbors, contribute to a GoFundMe aimed at opening spaces in the city “as warm, fuzzy and full of life” as Arturo himself – “Lots of love.”

“Help me make this dream a reality,” Robbins said. “I have seen how people can come together for a good cause. Let’s provide people with a hand up.”

Erica Star Robbins stands with Arturo’s empty wheelchair in Birmingham (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)