Friday, December 22, 2006

Candlelight vigil honors homeless who have died
by April Hunt Sentinel Staff Writer

December 22, 2006

Leslie Stephens only discovered she had Stage 4 breast cancer when she moved into the Women's Residential Counseling Center in Orlando with her three children.

She immediately began treatment when she entered the shelter in November 2005. It wasn't enough.

Stephens was 33 when she died Sept. 30, one of 14 people from the three-county metro region who died this year, in part because of being on the streets and without proper care.

"If she had a stable home setting, she could have gotten access to medical care sooner, and that might have made the difference," said Cathy Jackson, who heads the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida. "It could have been different."

Jackson led more than 50 people Thursday evening in a candlelight vigil at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Orlando.

Homeless Persons' Memorial Day -- part of a nationwide event on the longest night of the year -- is designed to draw attention to the needs of the homeless and to give them a public memorial after often-invisible lives.

Two of those being honored, August Felix and Ronald Klaas, were murder victims.

Five teens were arrested and accused of kicking and beating Felix "for sport," according to Orlando police records. He was 54 when he died May 1.

Klaas, whom friends called Gumby because of his missing teeth, was shot before dawn on a May morning as he headed to the downtown bus station to go to work. He was 51.

Some of the others died in relative obscurity.

"A lot of people don't believe that other people live in the woods," said Nancy Martinez, whose job as outreach specialist with Health Care Center for the Homeless is to traipse into the encampments and encourage the homeless to get medical care.

She knows many of the people in the woods and on the street by name.

She met Severo Vazquez early in her four-year stint as part of the center's Hope Team. Vazquez was a military veteran who lived alone in a camp on W.D. Judge Boulevard. Martinez found him there one Monday morning, dead from a heart attack during the weekend.

Joe Mazur lived just down the road from Vazquez, in a camp of about 20 other homeless people near Princeton Street and John Young Parkway. Martinez said Mazur was doing well in getting healthy when he fell into a depression and wouldn't stop drinking.

"He drank himself to death," Martinez said. "We found him alive but severely dehydrated. He died at the hospital."

Advocates have squared off with Orlando officials this year over issues such as where charities can feed the homeless and the city's efforts to clear encampments near the Sylvia Lane feeding site.

Also on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union submitted to the city clerk declarations from many of the homeless, listing what they lost in the evictions. Among items taken were clothes and medicines, as well as family photos, work tools and documents, said Jacqueline Dowd, the attorney who compiled the affidavits.

"A lot of those people are still there," Dowd said, of the Sylvia Lane area. "For most of them, there is no place else to go."

Jackson emphasized that the region has only about 3,000 beds available for an estimated 8,000 homeless people. Some homeless refuse to go to certain shelters, but those who do often find the facilities full, she said.

Advocates and political leaders who attended Thursday's rally pledged to work together on a solution. Ideas being discussed are more transitional beds for people ready to leave shelters but not life on their own, and more affordable housing for those able to work but not pay market rate.

Stephens would have approved of anything that made those options available.

Even while receiving treatment for cancer, she completed coursework that let her take the test to become a licensed practical nurse, said Jose Irizarry, housing director at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. The coalition operates the shelter where Stephens lived with her daughters, ages 14 and 6, and 4-year-old son.

Stephens took the exam. But by the time the results arrived in an envelope, she was so ill that she didn't want to face the possibility she didn't pass.

"She didn't want anything that might depress her," Irizarry said. "Even when she was in a nursing home, she begged me not to exit her from our program. Of course I didn't. That's how important it is to have a place of your own."

April Hunt can be reached at 407-420-6269 or

Dozens honor homeless with vigil

The Times-Union

They vanish from society, leaving behind a few scattered belongings and the friends they'd met trying to get their lives together.

They have heart attacks. They get into accidents at day labor sites. For one man, a stabbing took him.

Rain drizzled at Hemming Plaza as nearly 30 people gathered Thursday to light candles, pray and listen to the stories. Wanda Lanier, executive director for Jacksonville's Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition, said deaths among the city's homeless total around a half-dozen each year. Events like the vigil downtown serve as a eulogy for those who couldn't afford funerals.

"It's to recognize that homeless people are part of this community, and when they die they're not just some animal you pick up off the street and cremate," said event organizer Stan Grenn, a Catholic deacon with New Hope Ministry.

The venue for Jacksonville's memorial was a section of downtown where police have increased efforts to deal with aggressive panhandling and trespassing. Advocates for the homeless have been critical of the plan, arguing it lumps homeless people and criminals into one category, creating an unwelcoming environment for people in need near the region's greatest concentration of services.

Police say they're working to make downtown safer.

Among the 30 people who attended the service, a few live on the streets.

Ron Nester, a contractor who just Wednesday lost his job and place to live, broke into tears as he listened to the story of a friend who'd fallen to his death at a work site this year.

"I had the honor and the privilege to work with him on quite a few jobs. He was real easy to get along with and he had a real excellent personality," Nester said.

Similar events were scheduled in Nassau and St. Johns counties among hundreds throughout the nation. Since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless has sponsored the memorials on the first night of winter.

A crowd of about 50 people gathered Thursday night outside First United Methodist Church in St. Augustine for a candlelight vigil. They sang Silent Night and then shared a holiday meal.

Organizers of the event said there were at least 11 homeless people known to have died in St. Johns County this year.

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