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Ceremony honors Pinellas homeless who died in 2023

David Krakow

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Bagpiper Gemma Briggs plays "Amazing Grace" before the Dec. 22 Service of Remembrance. Photos by David Krakow.

St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch was joined by residents, members of the homeless population, advocates and clergy Friday night at the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg for the 2023 Service of Remembrance. The annual ceremony honors homeless people in Pinellas County who lost their lives during the year.

After Pastor Sam Picard performed the welcome invocation, Welch told the packed room “it is our duty to educate those in our circles the meaning of homelessness.” 

“We are all an accident, a medical issue or a job loss from being homeless,” he cautioned.

Mayor Ken Welch addresses the congregation at Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg.

Reverend Ben Atherton-Zeman of the Unitarian Church echoed that, sharing how he had once spent months living in his car in New Hampshire. “You could have been reading my name on a list instead of hearing my voice,” he added.

The “list” he referenced contained the names of the 117 homeless who died in the county in 2023. Others clarified that the 117 were only those confirmed by the coroner’s office.

Shelli Muncy, of Mother Teresa of Calcutta of St . Pete, read the 117 names as eight candles were lit on stage. Afterwards, congregants were asked to call out others not on the list and around a dozen people yelled out other names from all corners of the church. Picard then asked those gathered to “listen to those names and honor those people, whether you know them or not.”

National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is Dec. 21 and Welch declared Dec. 22 Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in St. Petersburg, asking people to celebrate the day “in an atmosphere of dignity and reverence.” This was the 17th annual memorial in the city.

After Welch completed his remarks, someone yelled out, asking if the mayor was taking questions, but Welch continued to his seat in the first row.

The theme throughout was society’s responsibility to care for the homeless.

“We must live up to the obligations of our neighbors,” implored Father Bill Yanson of Mother Teresa. “We only have one job as humans, to love each other. It should be simple.”

“Why in this country of billionaires do we not have more food?” asked Atherton-Zeman. “Why in a country with skyscrapers that touch the sky do we not have enough affordable housing?” Referring to the list of names, he added “maybe if we do better this list can be shorter.”

Several speakers decried street violence and other issues that imperil those that live on the streets. Some cited the weather, asking that people celebrating the holidays remember that this is the hardest time of the year for some homeless because of the cold.

Briggs led a procession from the church to Mirror Lake, where congregants laid 117 flowers. 

Wheelchair-bound Pastor GW Rolle of Missio Dei Community of St. Pete expressed thanks that he was still alive to witness this year’s memorial. “I want one more year,” he said to the cheers of those around him. “And even if I don’t have another year, I love you.”

Eight candles were lit in honor of the 117 who died in 2023.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    LY

    December 25, 2023at10:32 am

    As a nearby resident I see homeless people, as many of us do, around the city. It’s a larger problem for the city than can’t be addressed here however, having them lay, be fed, or sleep around our parks is not a solution. It actually causes people who want to use the parks to avoid them. I recently had friends visiting, supporting local shops, restaurants, hotels and more, who commented they purposely avoided the parks with their children as there were groups of homeless congregating. Great impressions. Additionally,charities who pull up in their cars and pass out Styrofoam plates of food contribute to it. Many of the homeless leave trash behind them when they move from place to place. Maybe those same charities should join the loval clean up organizations who pick up their Styrofoam! Let’s think about creating a covered place for them to get out of the weather and food to be delivered, not a public space and not our parks! I’ve not been particularly impressed with Welsh. Perhaps he should join a non profit charity organization and leave the building of the city to those better suited.

  2. Avatar

    RW

    December 25, 2023at10:20 am

    Our city parks were not created for homeless camps. The homeless are being fed, but not housed. Being homeless is one thing, but leaving garbage and clothing strewn around our city parks is another. They can do better.

  3. Avatar

    Andrew Sorrell Ferguson

    December 24, 2023at6:48 pm

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  4. Avatar

    Mike

    December 24, 2023at1:18 pm

    The government is not a charity organization. If Welch wants to help homeless (non voting and non tax paying) then he should resign from government and pursue his passion. His responsibility is to tax payers and voters. Where is the ceremony for wage slaves and debt prisoners who lived under the boot of government taxation? Take your perverse homeless fetish to your personal time and protect this community. It’s your job!

  5. Avatar

    hh

    December 24, 2023at7:13 am

    Our city and county have an over abundance of money and resources to help the homeless populations. We should not normalize the unhealthy and dangerous conditions that are being encouraged. We are failing this population when we encourage homelessness and vagrancy and the church is not being respectful of neighbors and residents by encouraging continued homelessness. Mirror Lake is a blighted embarrassment….right at the doorstep of our city and the church is a major contributor to this.

  6. Avatar

    KG

    December 24, 2023at6:18 am

    Mirror Lake is my neighborhood, I do understand why unhoused people spend their days and sometimes nights there. It’s a beautiful lake with flowering trees, ducks, wading birds and as of late a resident alligator. The Unitarian Church does so much to provide food and shelter for the unhoused. Conversely, I also see and witness the complete lack of dignity and responsibilities this unhoused population lives. They urinate and dedicate publicly because there is no infrastructural to support their hygiene needs. They discard food containers and dirty clothing in the park, on sidewalks and alleyways. Are we truly helping them or are we enabling their lifestyle bereft of dignity. Perhaps in addition to educating the public we should also educate the unhoused. Perhaps serving meals with reusable plates and utensils and providing and requiring those receiving these meals a place to wash these dishes and store them for future use would instill a feeling of personal and societal responsibility and self care. What’s happening now is fantastic but it could be better for our beautiful neighborhood.

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