TAMPA — He wears a wooden cross, strung on black thread.
Niles Hall hasn't taken it off since the last Sunday in June, when his friend Clifford Spears gave it to him and then died.
"We slept side by side out here on the streets," Hall said of Spears, who worked with him in labor pools on weekdays and sang with him Sundays in various churches.
Hall, 47, came Monday night to light a candle for Spears at the annual Homeless Persons' Memorial at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square.
Those gathered read names of 53 known homeless people, including Spears, who died this year in Hillsborough County. Of them, 42 were male and 11 female. The youngest: Serenity Brown, a 1-month-old girl who died of unknown causes.
They were strangled, burned, hit by cars and beaten. Some had succumbed to disease.
The annual memorial, held by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, honors the lives of the homeless on one of the longest nights of the year.
Winter nights are tough, said Hall, who has lived on the streets 2 1/2 years. With enough blankets, he can stay warm. But if he gets wet, he said, "that's a problem."
At the end of Monday's memorial, workers from the coalition handed out 30 sleeping bags and sacks of toothpaste, socks and snacks.
Hall arrived late, so he got a blanket instead of a sleeping bag.
He and Spears used to sleep on the sidewalk outside the Salvation Army, until they were chased away.
"People look at you and call you bums or whatever, but all it takes is an accident or one bad decision," Hall said. "We're all types of people."
Spears was a compassionate man, Hall said. One time he used his food stamps to buy food for hungry people, Hall said. "He was a better guy than myself."
Spears was diagnosed with prostate cancer in November, Hall said. They were together the day Spears died.
"One good thing about it," Hall said, "God didn't let him suffer."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3321.