Memorial service for homeless held at Pinellas Hope

12/22/08 Concetta DeLuco
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In observance of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, over the weekend, several interfaith services were held throughout Pinellas County to honor and remember the homeless who have died throughout the year. In the Pinellas Park area, a ceremony was held on Sunday at Pinellas Hope, a temporary shelter.

Recognizing the growing number of homeless in Pinellas County and the increase in deaths among them, the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless coordinated the 30-minute memorial service.

At Pinellas Hope, several of the temporary residents lit candles in remembrance of those who had died, and a free meal was available to all following the observance.

Father Joe Diaz from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clearwater said his parish does a lot of work with the homeless throughout the year. He was at the memorial service to honor those who died but did not have anyone to mourn them, Diaz said.

Each year since 1990, the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is held on or around the first day of winter, the longest and darkest day of the year. Lynn Edmonds, a volunteer at Pinellas Hope, said a memorial service “lets the homeless know that they are not alone in the world and they do matter.” It gives them the same dignity that average citizens experience when they die, Edmonds said, and it is especially important to remember the homeless this time of year.

Pinellas Hope was founded as the “new tent city” in late 2007 by Catholic Charities, along with the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. The original tent city in downtown St. Petersburg was destroyed by the police in early 2007. Pinellas Hope was created as a temporary, four-month replacement project, but is still going strong.

Sheila Lopez of Catholic Charities said Pinellas Hope hopes to allow its residents to reach self sufficiency before they leave. And after having served 985 homeless, with a 52 percent success rate, Lopez said, Pinellas Hope is doing very well. Lisa and John were two of the residents at Pinellas Hope who were remembered in the service.

Pinellas Hope currently serves 256 temporary residents.

Harees Smith is one of those residents who has been homeless periodically for the past 10 years. He said he has battled drug and alcohol addiction and has been in and out of the typical “daily” temporary shelters. Pinellas Hope, Smith said, is by far the most supportive organization he has encountered. It has helped him with his addiction and he is currently enrolled in school. The memorial service is something that is very important to the residents, Smith said, who have died before they were able to go back out in the world.

From St. Jerome’s Church in Largo, Julianne Zwissler, a volunteer, said it is very important to surround the homeless with people who care, especially around Christmas.

Currently, there are more than 5,000 people homeless in Pinellas County, but fewer available emergency or permanent shelters available to help them. This evening, additional memorial services are being held at the Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in Tampa and the Gulf Coast Community Care Homeless Shelter in Hudson.

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