Homeless persons' memorial service held in downtown Tampa
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12/22/09 Concetta DeLuco
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:

Last night, in honor of Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, a candlelight vigil and commemorative service was held at the Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in downtown Tampa.

Dozens of people gathered to remember the men and women who died in 2009. A large number of those in attendance were homeless. Lesa Weikel is with the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. She said an event like this is important to pay tribute to the homeless whose deaths might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Len Kurtz is currently homeless in Hillsborough County. He said the vigil is important to bring people together to remember the homeless who died, but he will never forget his friend who died living out on the streets.

A study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates there are more than 3.5 million homeless people in the United States. In Hillsborough County, there are around 9500. Since 2004, the Homeless Coalition has honored hundreds of homeless men, women and children who have died on the streets of Hillsborough County. Weikel said the average age of death for the homeless is between 50 and 60 years old. And the causes of death are similar.

Of the many homeless living in Hillsborough County, more than 25% are minors. Until a month ago, Joshua Dyar was one of them. He said being homeless was a very hard experience. He describes a fight where he witnessed a fellow homeless man killed over food.

Since then, Joshua has found housing, help and a warm welcome from Dr. Tom Atchinson at New Beginnings of Tampa, an organization that houses hundreds of homeless people. Atchinson said the event is not only important to remember the homeless who died, but to raise awareness about what it is like to be homeless.

In raising awareness about the homeless, Weikel said the most important thing to remember is that the homeless are people too.

As a homeless person, Len Kurtz said the most important thing he wants people to know is that he isn’t there by choice and he doesn’t enjoy it.

Weikel said December 21st is recognized as National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day because it is the longest and sometimes the coldest night of the year in most places throughout the United States. And it hopes to serve as a reminder that people are living outdoors in the uncomfortable, unhealthy and cold conditions.

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