Memorial service to mark homeless lives lost this year
Fifteen bells and 15 candlelights will help set a somber mood Sunday on the steps of the Old Lee County Courthouse, where the Lee County Homeless Coalition will hold its 12th Annual Candlelight Vigil at 6 p.m.
The 15 bells and lights will memorialize the 15 homeless people who are known to have died this year in Lee County.
“There could’ve been more people, we just don’t know,” said Janet Bartos, coordinator of the coalition.
Bartos said the memorial service is typically held on the longest night of the year, Dec. 21, the first official day of winter, to remind people what the homeless deal with on a daily basis.
“It’s the longest night of the year. They’re facing the elements for much longer,” she said.
Allen Bratton, chairman of the Community Awareness and Education Task Force, said he has seen a noticeable increase in the number of homeless people in the area.
“It seems to be getting worse. Based on the amount of services we’ve been providing, we believe there are a lot more homeless people out there,” Bratton said.
A number of factors contribute to homelessness, including a lack of affordable housing and a dearth of job opportunities.
In a year when the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area led the nation in foreclosure rates for July and November, and the unemployment rate in Lee County reached 9.5 percent, the ranks of the homeless will clearly swell.
The Lee County Homeless Coalition conducts its annual count at the end of January. This past year, there were about 3,000 homeless people in the county.
“We anticipate the numbers to be much higher this year,” Bratton said.
At the same time, the need for services for the homeless are on the rise.
Government funding for those services is being cut, as the state and other municipalities deal with shortfalls as part of the fallout from a housing crisis that has crippled the economy.
“The funding of all the agencies has gone down, particularly in the county and state budgets. The federal funding has stayed the same, but at the same time, the need is increasing,” Bratton said.
One silver lining of a sour economy is that the conception of homelessness as a willful condition may start to change.
“Otherwise, people don’t pay much attention. But if your neighbor becomes homeless it becomes real to you,” Bratton said.
After the bells are rung and the luminary bags are lit, the names of the departed will be read, followed by a rendition of “Taps.”
With another difficult year on the horizon, Bartos and Bratton will work to reduce the number of names read next year.
“It’s going to get a lot harder before it gets better,” Bartos said.