Homeless Memorial Day recognized in Tampa
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12/22/10 Janelle Irwin
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Members of the Hillsborough County community gathered in Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in downtown Tampa last night to remember the lives of their homeless neighbors. WMNF's Janelle Irwin reports, residents showed their compassion by lighting 56 candles; each one representing one death.

"This year we will remember 56 homeless men and women who's names we know. They died from being hit by cars, by trains, drowning in local waterways and ponds, beatings, untreated medical conditions, and even suicide. The average age of death was 51."

As 2010 comes to a close, Tampa is missing at least 56 of its residents. For many of Tampa’s fallen homeless, their lives were not celebrated and their deaths not mourned. Patricia Langford is President of the homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. She says this is the only memorial these people will ever receive.

"This year we will remember 56 homeless men and women who's names we know. They died from being hit by cars, by trains, drowning in local waterways and ponds, beatings, untreated medical conditions, and even suicide. The average age of death was 51."

Because of the high rate of homelessness in Tampa, December 21st is now officially proclaimed a day of memorial.

"Recognizing the significance of this service, Tampa's mayor Pam Iorio and the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners have proclaimed today as a homeless persons memorial day. And each, recognizing that the cause of ending homelessness is urgent as the community's collective committment to preventing these deaths in the future."

Mark Neville was one of the many remembered last night. Neville passed away in May, just weeks after marrying his partner of 14 years. Nan Neville described her husband as a good man with a kind heart.

"I just wish he was with me today, he meant so much to me and I just loved him so much. I know a lot of people that know him, respected him as much as me and we all miss him and I think if any one of you knew him, you'd probably feel the same way."

Neville recalled her husband and the life they shared. They spent 8 years on the streets together. They had several trailers over the years, but each time life got the better of them and they ended right back on the streets, she said. Regardless she recalled her husband’s out of the ordinary proposal without regret.

"Mark come over to the curb where I was sitting and he said, 'you're not going to believe this', I said 'what'. He said 'we're getting married tomorrow'. I said, 'what?', this is after 14 years, now, I'm like, 'what?'. He says, 'no kidding, we are getting married tomorrow', he said, 'oh, but I forgot to ask you.' He got down on a hand and knee, in the middle of the road, and asked me if I'd marry him and I said, 'you know I would.' I started crying. I said, 'you know I will' "

The couple shared their final goodbye’s along Bayshore Boulevard where Mark Neville’s ashes were spread.

"Miss Lilliquist drove me out to Bayshore to distribute his ashes and the ashes flew back at me and I said to Lila 'maybe that was my husband way of giving me a kiss and telling me a final goodbye.' "

Though the evening’s primary purpose was to provide a memorial for those who would otherwise not have one, organizations also rallied together to provide blankets and jackets to those in need. Lesa Weikel of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County reached out to those gathered to volunteer in a count of all homeless people in Hillsborough County. The count will consist of teams of 3 volunteers that will canvas the county. Weikel says the information gathered will be a crucial step in obtaining federal grants.

"This information is critical to securing funding. A lot of government funding is based on the need which translates into laymen's terms, the number of people. So, beyond the government funding, private foundations and grantors ask for that information as well. So it helps us really show who our homeless neighbors are, how long have they been homeless, what caused their homelessness?"

The count will be conducted between 4:00 am and 11:00 pm on January 27. Representatives from the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County still need volunteers. For more information call 813-223-6115 or email info@homelessofhc.org.

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