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The forgotten remembered

A ceremony mourns the homeless who died this year in Hillsborough County.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

TAMPA -- Even after he became homeless, the U.S. Navy veteran with the quiet demeanor kept his hair neat and his face clean-shaven.

His youngest son had died of cystic fibrosis. His wife killed herself.

On the streets of North Tampa, he killed himself too, sucking on a crack pipe.

"He tried to present himself well," said Gerard Hendrickson, a social worker with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Tampa. "But there was a lot of torment inside."

Hendrickson declined to name the man, citing patient confidentiality and respect for the family.

But in a candlelight ceremony at Rest Haven Memorial Park Saturday, the man's name was called with 36 others who died homeless this year in Hillsborough County.

About 40 people, including several who were homeless, paid their respects at the ceremony, which was duplicated in more than 100 cities across the country. Every year since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless has sponsored the event, which it calls Homeless Memorial Day.

"A lot of these people were labeled homeless and that's all we knew about them," said James Joyce, president of the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. "Now they have names. Now they will be people."

Participants listened to excerpts from For Whom the Bell Tolls, by 17th century minister and poet John Donne, and sang the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby. Then they lit one candle for each person who died.

"Let us pray that those who remain homeless find a home before they pass on," said Richard Fincke. "Amen?"

"Amen," the crowd responded.

The coalition estimates there are about 5,700 homeless people in Hillsborough County, including 1,300 who are children. Last year, officials with the county's homeless recovery program began tracking homeless deaths by sorting through records at the Medical Examiner's Office. In 2001, they counted 49 deaths.

The number didn't surprise Michael Gainey.

Life on the streets is "upside down, inside out," said Gainey, who has been homeless for a year and attended Saturday's ceremony.

Records show some died from drug overdoses, some from being struck by cars. Some were murdered. Some killed themselves.

One man was found dead in a restaurant bathroom. The body of another was found decomposing next to a car that crashed in woods near Ruskin.

The youngest of those who died was 23; the oldest, 74. Five were women. Seven were veterans.

"They are our brothers and sisters," said Rhonda Wetmore, whose daughter works for a homeless outreach program under Mental Health Inc.

Wetmore attended Saturday's event with her fiance, 10-year-old son and 8-year-old grandson.

"Most people have this idea that homeless people are lazy," Wetmore said. "But many are mentally ill and need our help."

The Navy vet died in March, after losing control of a pickup and slamming into a motel on Nebraska Avenue, according to records in the Medical Examiner's Office. Alcohol was cited as a factor.

The man was being treated for depression and substance abuse.

"I get tired of being broke and hungry," he told a caseworker, according to a document in Hendrickson's files. "I can't get off crack on my own."

He listed no next of kin, though he had a son in Manatee County and other relatives in Central Florida. He was too embarrassed, Hendrickson said.

Organizers chose Rest Haven for the ceremony because that's where the homeless are buried -- if they're lucky enough to have relatives who request a burial.

The county pays $1,400 for the ceremony, which includes a wood casket wrapped in gray cloth, but no grave marker. If no relatives are found, the county pays $329 to have the remains cremated and scattered in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Navy vet's body was cremated after the county got permission from the foster parents of his other son.

Records show nobody claimed the ashes.

Homeless deaths

According to the Hillsborough County homeless recovery program, these are the homeless men and women who died this year:

Jason Gonzalez, 23

Lawrence Edward Hubbard, 49

Edward Cann, 45

Lauriel Plaskett, 56

Steven Mack Harden, 42

Toni Zawicki, 37

Louis Goldman, 57

Victor McNeil Bell, 53

Scott A. Woodle, 43

Michelle Swan, 51

Ricky Johnson, 48

Ronald C. Oxley, 38

Charles Smith, 38

James Homant, 51

Roderick Wynn, 34

Jonny R. Monts, 46

Alberto Ugalde, 54

Shirley Jackson, 57

Kevin Anthony Graney, 56

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