Dozens gather for St. Petersburg memorial to homeless people

Barry Mullins prays during the National Homeless Persons Memorial Service on Sunday at the Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg. Mullins, a veteran, stays at the St. Vincent de Paul Center of Hope housing facility.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Barry Mullins prays during the National Homeless Persons Memorial Service on Sunday at the Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg. Mullins, a veteran, stays at the St. Vincent de Paul Center of Hope housing facility.

ST. PETERSBURG

Barry Mullins' mind wasn't on his own homelessness as he bowed his head in prayer Sunday inside the sanctuary at Trinity Lutheran Church.

He was thinking of Gene, a dear friend who never got the chance to climb his way out of a similar situation. Gene, Mullins said, was drunk when he wandered into Broward County traffic and was fatally struck by a car.

"He was a good guy. He'd give you the shirt off his back," Mullins, 50, said. "I really do miss him."

Remembering homeless people who have died, and shining a light on the plight of people living on the streets, are why for 22 years on or around Dec. 21 — the first day of winter — the National Coalition for the Homeless has encouraged communities to organize memorial services.

"The whole idea is to remember those who have died, bring some dignity to their lives, and invigorate those of us who attend to get involved whether it be donating some canned food, building a house or everything in between," said George Bolden, a volunteer with Celebrate Outreach, the nonprofit that organized Sunday's service at Trinity with the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

About 150 people gathered at Trinity Lutheran to pray, sing and remember the 53 verified Pinellas County homeless people who have died over the last year.

Bells chimed as attendees read aloud their names — some identified only as "unknown man" and "unknown woman."

Similar events were held Sunday in Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County will hold a memorial service at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in Tampa.

Instead of focusing on deaths Sunday, organizers said they were focused on celebrating life.

The Rev. Gregory Rolle, who once lived on the streets himself, offered the eulogy. He told parishioners he's read studies showing homelessness cuts 15 years off a life. He spoke of a 2009 national report deeming St. Petersburg second only to Los Angeles in the ways it makes a crime out of being homeless.

According to a Pinellas County count conducted the night of Jan. 23 by volunteers, 5,887 people were without homes. That, officials estimate, translates to about 22,000 people expected to experience homelessness at some point during the year.

This is the fifth year that Celebrate Outreach has observed the national day. Organizers said the group grew out of meetings of the directors of downtown St. Petersburg churches, who began gathering in 2007 to discuss ways to help city officials combat a number of growing problems.

"Downtown was once a place of lovely bungalows and well-to-do people," said volunteer and Trinity parishioner Jacque Bishop. "And now our downtown has a lot of problems as other cities' downtowns have in terms of homelessness."

Celebrate Outreach heads various ministries, including one that serves breakfast to homeless people on Saturdays at Trinity. It also has partnered with St. Petersburg's St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church to build up to 15 units of permanent, supported housing for female homeless veterans with children.

"We're here as an interfaith community to prevent and end homelessness." Bolden said. "We're not trying to manage it and legislate it. We're trying to make it go away."

Dozens gather for St. Petersburg memorial to homeless people 12/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 19, 2011 7:12am]

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