Homeless Persons' Memorial Service in Orlando honors 162 people
Heritage Square Park in Orlando served as the stage Wednesday morning for the annual Homeless Persons' Memorial Service.
The public event is a remembrance of those who died while experiencing homelessness in Central Florida this past year.
This year, 162 names were read aloud, including one John Doe. For each name, a bell rang, and each time, volunteers hung a white, paper dove with the victim’s name on a Christmas tree. In the end, the display served as tribute — a visual representation of the homelessness crisis.
Eric Gray, executive director of the Christian Service Center for Central Florida, said the goal is to memorialize the individuals but also to raise awareness, bring the community together, and encourage involvement.
“I think the added reasoning behind this is to make sure that no one else forgets either. I love that these are not just people, they're important people — these are our neighbors, and if somebody doesn't eulogize them, what does that mean about our community? What does that mean about our society?” He said.
Traditionally, this annual service is held near the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, in recognition of the difficulties that nighttime poses for those without housing, according to the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida.
For many of the people honored, the event is the only memorial of their passing — and Gray said the list gets longer each year.
“So even though we can identify everybody, for the most part, the list still keeps getting longer. And that speaks to the fact that we have a growing population of unsheltered adults and children in this community. And it doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon,” he said.
One of the nonprofits involved in setting up the event was IDignity, an organization that helps individuals obtain identification documents.
Staff Attorney Sharlene Stanford was one of the volunteers who hung up the ornaments. She said the experience was a blessing.
“It's really special and moving, and it allows that person to be honored in that moment. And the name on the dove is also important because we remember their name,” Stanford said. “That name represents a life, it represents a story, it represents all of the accomplishments they had, all of the struggles, all of the challenges. And it matters and it should be celebrated.”
The event has been taking place since 2002; IDignity joined the efforts in 2014. Gray said that thanks to the organization, they seldom ever have any John or Jane Does anymore.
Stanford said this work is of particular importance to the mission, even after someone’s passing.
“We are proud to be able to help those in the community to get their identification, to help them reach self sufficiency and to get them back on track to get them out of situations that are now not allow them to really reap the benefits that all of us should be entitled to,” she said. “This is an opportunity to make sure someone who's passed away is remembered and to know their life matters and counts.”
According to Gray, the issue of homelessness is no longer something to be left up to organizations. He said we need deep pockets, government, and the whole community to intervene.
"I think the idea that homelessness is something that you don't have to deal with yourself because somebody else is taking care of it — I think we're past that point, and this is no longer an issue for churches and charities," Gray said. "This is an issue for cities and counties. This is an emergency management issue that really transcends people's good wishes and thoughts and prayers — this is a big, big deal — and these many people dying unsheltered is just indicative of the size and scope of the epidemic that we're dealing with."
At the end of the service, the hundreds of attendees got to take a named dove home, in hopes that it will help to continue spreading awareness of the homelessness crisis.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.