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Service memorializes 49 homeless who died this year in Pinellas

ST. PETERSBURG

His home lay folded and stuffed into a cart with wheels beside him.

Jerome Horacek sat in the pews of Trinity Lutheran Church while the man at the lectern said something about how this day's congregation is like the lepers of Jesus Christ's time.

True, Horacek, 48, thought. He recently has stopped walking on Central Avenue because people eating on the sidewalk in front of restaurants pull their plates closer as he nears, or they throw their gaze down, fearing he'll beg for money.

But Sunday he was among friends. They filled the seats beneath the stained glass and organ — their hair unruly, sun-bleached yellow, day bags by their sides, and some removing their shoes to let the toes breathe on the wood-grain pews.

Horacek and about 200 area homeless gathered to remember 49 of their fellows who died in Pinellas County this year. Since 1990, the nation observes National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day on or around Dec. 21, which coincides with the winter solstice, the longest night and darkest day of the year.

A group of local congregations called Celebrate Outreach hosted a special service inside the church at 401 Fifth St. N. They memorialized the dead, urged the community to find solutions to homelessness and prayed that the county look upon these people's deaths not as one fewer indigent person but "one less fellow human being, one less of ourselves," said the Rev. Katy Korb, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg.

In Pinellas County, there are nearly 7,000 homeless people, according to a study released by the county's Homeless Leadership Board. More than 4,000 of those sleep in cars, abandoned buildings or shelters like Horacek does.

Horacek had two things on his mind that day: One was his friend who had passed this year, John Garry, hit by a car while crossing the street, Horacek said. The other was Tuesday, which is supposed to bring rain and low temperatures in the 40s.

"If it's rainy and cold outside you got a couple choices," he said. "Either be cold, or get a cold. And if you get sick, you're putting your name on that list" — referring to a printout with the 49 names of the deceased.

Horacek lost his job and home six months ago. He said he and Garry bedded down at the same spot near a local Publix. They watched each other's belongings, he said, which is vital when everything you own fits in a 3-foot-tall cart.

Inside the cart, Horacek keeps food, water, jackets and blankets. Without Garry to watch his belongings, he makes sure to secure the cart with a bike lock.

At the church service, a choir swayed side-to-side while a man supplied the drum beat with his mouth.

"They need a place to rest their heads," the song went. At least one man broke into tears and everyone jumped up and gave a ruckus applause afterward.

The Rev. Joe Esposito stood at the front and called for volunteers to hold lit candles signifying each deceased homeless person in the county.

"In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them," he said.

He read the list of names.

The homeless men and women lit each candle and walked the perimeter of the pews. A man in a wheelchair who knew four of the deceased began to cry.

"We as members of this community commit to the shared value that no one should be homeless," Esposito said. "And in honor of those who have died, we will work toward that end, with God as our helper. Amen."

Service memorializes 49 homeless who died this year in Pinellas 12/22/13 [Last modified: Sunday, December 22, 2013 11:37pm]
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