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Remembering those who died while homeless in Pinellas this year

A memorial service was held in early observance of Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
Brian West, 46, of St. Petersburg, listens to speakers during National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day at Mirror Lake on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
Brian West, 46, of St. Petersburg, listens to speakers during National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day at Mirror Lake on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2022|Updated Dec. 17, 2022

In the back of the chapel, he sat anxiously waiting — tapping his leg as the reverend read out names.

Timothy Adams. Ashlee Jones. Dorothea Harper. Ira (Skip) Gum.

Each name called belonged to one of the 85 people known to have died while homeless in Pinellas County this year. The total number almost certainly is higher, officials say.

But not all who are lost have someone to remember them, to tell stories of how in a nation as rich as the U.S., people still die without food and shelter.

That’s what this service at the Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown St. Petersburg was trying to change. It was why Brian West, dressed in a royal blue windbreaker and cargo pants, had seated himself in one of the pews.

West was one of nearly 100 people at the Friday gathering, which drew faith leaders and nonprofit CEOs, people experiencing homelessness and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch.

The service was in observation of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. The official date of remembrance is Dec. 21 — the darkest day of the calendar year, when houseless people are most vulnerable.

Glenn Wilder of St. Petersburg reads a remembrance board during a service for National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
Glenn Wilder of St. Petersburg reads a remembrance board during a service for National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“We remember those whose full names or history we do not know,” the reverend said after the final name was read. “In this moment, let us call out any additional names not spoken here.”

West bowed his head. He thought of her.

They were young when they met. How young? He can’t remember, but young enough to fall in and out of love a handful of times.

He was a mechanic, she was on SSI disability. They got engaged after a few years together, but never married. Life was rough. Housing was hard to come by and they landed on the streets.

West had been on his own since he was 14, and in and out of homelessness ever since. Later in life, she’d experienced the same.

Still, together, even the hard times had a semblance of stability. West said he knew he was part of a team.

They helped each other and supported friends who were homeless, too, sharing resources, giving what they didn’t need.

Sometimes, he wishes people who had more would consider doing the same.

West thinks about chance a lot; how with the flip of a coin, he could be you or me. We could be him.

He thinks about how fragile things are; how, with the loss of a job, or a partner, or an unanticipated medical emergency, a person’s financial security and mental health could slip away. He wonders how we’d each end up, if we were born into a different home.

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He wants you to pause, and start to pay attention to people who are struggling. She would have wanted that, too.

When the Reverend asks again for additional names of people lost, he inhales and then projects.

“Susan,” he says, his voice cutting through the silent chamber. “Known as Susie Q.”

Brian West, 46, of St. Petersburg, holds a cluster of flowers while he listens to speakers during an event for National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day at Mirror Lake on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
Brian West, 46, of St. Petersburg, holds a cluster of flowers while he listens to speakers during an event for National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day at Mirror Lake on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]