ST. PETERSBURG – One by one, their names were read. In alphabetical order. All 69. An acknowledgement of the men and women who died without shelter of their own this year on streets, in parks, hospitals, vehicles and homeless camps.
In the pews of Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown St. Petersburg on Sunday, homeless people, many with backpacks tucked beside them or lying at their feet, sat reverently alongside those who work on their behalf, to remember friends and strangers who died in 2019.
The hour-long interfaith service included readings from Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions and a candle-lighting ceremony.
The Rev. Paul Gibson’s congregation hosted the service.
“We have homeless people who worship with us every Sunday, and one of them did die last year,” he said. Laurie Davis died in front of the historic church, at the corner of Fifth Street and Fourth Avenue N.
“She was struggling,” Gibson said. “I had to bite my tongue when she disrupted my Bible studies. But she was part of God’s family, and we knew she was being fed spiritually by being with us."
The sentiment of family was reiterated throughout the annual gathering. Susan Myers, CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, said similar services are held nationally to commemorate National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. They usually take place around the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year, she said.
In Pinellas County, the memorial service is organized by Celebrate Outreach, a coalition of faith-based groups and individuals committed to preventing and ending homelessness.
“I think it is important to recognize these people as human beings," said Reggie Craig, Celebrate Outreach president. “A lot of these people are estranged from their families. The only family they have is the community. It’s to help give some kind of closure and also some remembrance. It’s really a shame that we have to continue to have these events.”
Theresa Jones, manager of veterans and homeless services for St. Petersburg, read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Rick Kriseman declaring Dec. 15 Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
“Last year, it was so sobering and sad,” Jones said before the afternoon service. “The names they read. And people actually yelled out names of people who weren’t listed.”
This year, three additional names were called out from the congregation.
Celebrate Outreach compiles the list from names provided by the Pinellas County Medical Examiner’s office, Craig said. The numbers likely are higher than the official total, he said.
The service was supported by several organizations and faith groups. Anderson McQueen Funeral Homes provided laminated prayer cards carrying the names of each one of the deceased.
With the help of volunteers, G.W. Rolle, well known in the homeless community and pastor of Justice Ministries for the Missio Dei Community, prepared a dinner of turkey, ham, stuffing and mashed potatoes for 125 people who attended the service and the small group of homeless men and women who chose to remain outside.
Doug Bates, 60, who said he sleeps anywhere he can, was one of the volunteers that afternoon. He didn’t plan to attend the service.
“I deal with the living. The dead don’t need my help,” he said.
But he talked about Steven Cole, 67, who died on nearby Mirror Lake Drive in August.
“He lay down on a bench and went to sleep and never woke up,” Bates said. “He was actually a very nice guy.”
The medical examiner gave his cause of death as chronic ethanolism, or alcoholism. Other medical examiner documents provided to Celebrate Outreach included information about a 21-year-old day laborer who died when a tree trunk fell on him, those who succumbed to injuries after being hit by vehicles and others from drownings, drug-related problems and medical issues such as heart disease and emphysema. One man’s body was already decomposed when discovered. Those remembered this year died in cities throughout Pinellas County, including St. Petersburg, Seminole, St. Pete Beach, Oldsmar, Kenneth City, Largo, Madeira Beach, Pinellas Park, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs.
Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center, which assists the poor and homeless, lamented the loss of affordable housing in St. Petersburg.
“I know many of you out there ... I know you’re working, because we do your taxes at Daystar,” she told the congregation and alluded to struggles for security and health problems affected by their living conditions.
“I just pray that we can understand that homelessness is not a choice," she said.
Pastor Sam Picard, executive director of Missio Dei, gave the eulogy. Each of the homeless men and women who died was a beloved child of God, he said.
“We are poorer as a community because of their loss. Moreover, we are poorer because we allowed our neighbors to die on the streets and in motels and campsites at the edge of our neighborhood,” he said. “We mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters."