For more than a decade, Antonio Garcia lived a quiet existence in a hidden alley in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, sleeping in a small shack made from wood scraps and old mattresses and sharing an outdoor “living room” with a colony of nearly 40 feral cats.
“If my cats are fed, my heart is full,” the 64-year-old homeless man told neighbors who often looked in on him and brought food for him and the cats. The stray felines were not afraid of Antonio and routinely curled up with him to sleep inside his shack or lounge with him outside on sunny afternoons.
Then in mid-January this year, the alley suddenly fell silent.
A business owner in the neighborhood, concerned that he hadn’t seen Antonio walk past and wave hello for a couple of days during a brutal cold snap, called the police and asked if they could go to the alley and make a “wellness” check. Two officers found Antonio frozen to death inside his makeshift home as several dozen cats hissed and meowed at the police intrusion.
“The news was devastating — the thought of him freezing just tore me up,” Leona Sepulveda-Less, a neighbor who often visited with cat food and rotisserie chicken, tells PEOPLE. “Even in the brutal cold, Antonio chose to stay outside. He would never leave his cats. He left this world surrounded by the friends he loved.”
Hoping to do something in Antonio’s memory, Leona and others who were touched by his life set up a shrine to him in the alley with candles, crosses and flowers in beer bottle vases.
And now, they’re doing something to honor him that will have more impact.
“Antonio’s Friends,” as the group is known, have made a pact to continue to care for the West Loop cat colony, feeding and vaccinating the felines, building kitty shelters and spaying and neutering all of the cats. They’ve also started a fundraiser, bringing in more than $12,000 thus far to ensure that Antonio’s cats are cared for in years to come.
“Those cats were his family — they were all he had,” Cynthia Doepke, an animal rescue worker who convinced Antonio to allow her to trap, neuter and release some of his cats several years ago, tells PEOPLE.
Cynthia and one of Antonio’s neighbors, Janet O’Brian, often dropped by with hot meals for Antonio and cans of cat food for his companions.
“We would always remind him, ‘The cat food is for the cats and the other food is for you,’ ” says Cynthia, “but we would always find some remains of his meal on the ground. He couldn’t help but indulge the cats with what little he had.”
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It is her honor, she says, to do what she can to help keep Antonio’s cat colony well-fed and happy. She and other volunteers recently finished setting up a privacy fence to keep people out of the cats’ living area, and they’ve purchased heated water bowls, feeding stations and a surveillance camera so that they can always keep an eye on the alley.
“Antonio was a genuine, selfless man who chose this life and made it his mission to love and care for these cats without a home,” Cynthia tells PEOPLE. “How could we do any less?”
“Antonio changed the way that I see the homeless,” adds Leona. “He lived with very little, but his heart was full, so he was a king indeed. While we miss him, we know that he was content with the choices he made. We know that Antonio knew he was loved.”