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Hillsborough community gathers to remember homeless on winter's first night

Margaret Djekovic, 27, of Tampa relights candles after wind blew them out at a service honoring the county’s homeless who died this year. Djekovic works with both AmeriCorps and the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Margaret Djekovic, 27, of Tampa relights candles after wind blew them out at a service honoring the county’s homeless who died this year. Djekovic works with both AmeriCorps and the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

TAMPA

Cold winds forced the crowd of more than 70 mourners to stand close together on the steps of Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park Friday night.

Every year on the longest night, the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition gathers the community there to memorialize those who died alone with no address and unsure of where their next meals would come from.

Deborah Lyttle, 31, and Johnny B. Hall, 27, braved the cold to hear a volunteer call the names and light candles in honor of the homeless friends they lost in 2012.

One in particular, 17-year-old Jerridedan Lakisha Bolds Froyer, gave them pause. Froyer was the youngest of the 67 names called Friday night. She died in September, days before her 18th birthday, after being pushed off a bridge into the Arcadia River, according to the DeSoto County Sheriff's Office.

The Homeless Persons' Memorial Day service was the second event Hall had attended for Froyer. The first was on her birthday, Sept. 21 — a candlelight vigil outside the Salvation Army and a trip to Ybor City, one of Froyer's favorite places. She slept anywhere she could, Lyttle said. The teen had family and a bed, but problems at home made her return to the streets. She slept in parks, alleyways and abandoned homes.

"We tried to look out for her because she was so young," Hall said. "We protected her and kept the grown folks away."

But there are no real protections for the more than 17,000 people who can be considered homeless in Hillsborough County, said Lesa Weikel, a spokeswoman for the homeless coalition.

"We continue to try to help people understand the risks homeless people face. We did get some language into the hate crime law to include attacks on people because they are homeless," Weikel said. "Unfortunately, because they are on the streets they remain the most vulnerable."

As vulnerable as Rolando Rivera Arroyo, 73, who used a wheelchair and was murdered in August in a South Tampa church parking lot for reasons that still haven't emerged.

But other people aren't the only danger Hillsborough's homeless face. Time on the streets and vices took many more lives than violence this year.

Bob Jacobs, 60, remembered most of the stories Ronald Castro, 67, told him. Castro was born in New York, the youngest of 10 sons, and grew up in Pennsylvania. As a U.S. Army vet, Castro got a monthly check from the Veteran's Administration. Drinking kept him from holding a shelter bed.

Before Castro's death in the spring, his health deteriorated and his memory faded.

"It was like he was in a daze," said Jacobs, who is also a homeless U.S. Army vet. "He used to be happy-go-lucky."

Jacobs came out to remember his friend. He said he comes every year because inevitably, he will have known someone who died on the streets. He's been homeless himself on and off for stints as long as 10 years. This time, he's only been on the streets for two months.

Members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated handed out blankets and sleeping bags after the 40-minute ceremony.

Jacobs had other hopes for beating the cold.

"I really need some gloves," he said. "I just have to cover up tonight."

Hillsborough community gathers to remember homeless on winter's first night 12/21/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 11:22pm]

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