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Vigil held to remember those who died homeless

By Staff | Dec 23, 2019

The Lee County Homeless Coalition’s 23rd annual candlelight vigil was going to happen Saturday night in rain or shine because many who are homeless don’t have a choice whether they will go to sleep in rain or wake up in shine.

Dozens stood in front of the steps of the old Lee County Courthouse on Main Street in Fort Myers holding candles and umbrellas under the pouring rain to pay respect and bring awareness to the 23 people in Lee County who died homeless in 2019.

“These people have died without a home,” said Lee County Homeless Coalition Executive Director Janet Bartos. “What value do we place on a human life? How do we respond collectively to those in need? Can we who have so much allow others to live without the basic necessity of shelter?”

There were 3,000 people counted as homeless throughout the past year, according to statistics compiled by the Lee County Homeless Coalition. Their annual census in January, found 800 people homeless on a single day. Some are in shelters and others sleep in tents where they have some protection for the elements but Lee County has a homeless problem that the coalition is trying to tackle.

The vigil had a strong religious tone with All Souls Parish Episcopal Church the Rev. Christian Maxfield leading the vigil with prayers.

Maxfield’s wife Kate and children Colin and Hannah were also in attendance. “We have a connection to some of these names from the church,” Mrs. Maxfield said.

Harvey Charter, Commander of the Victor Paul Tuchman Southwest Florida Jewish War Veterans, played Taps. An Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, Charter said he has been attending the annual vigil for years. “I’m here for the homeless but specifically any (homeless) veterans. We’ve lost a lot of them.”

Amy Davies, Lee County Homeless Coalition Chair, said it was important to remember the homeless veterans. For many, she said, “this is the only thing they have.”

The rainy conditions Saturday night, Davies said, was a reminder of the difficulties homeless veterans face each night. “They are having to find a safe place to sleep in, having to find a meal, staying safe from humans and wildlife.”

The coalition’s next major event for the homeless will be the Homeless Service Day and Veteran Stand Down on Jan. 25 at City of Palms Stadium. There will also be a homeless census taken that day. Training for the census will take place on Jan. 17 at 8:30 a.m. at The Salvation Army on Edison Ave. in Fort Myers.

The coalition works with The Salvation Army and the United Way on coordinating services for the homeless, as well as working with government agencies. They are also working on a re-entry program to help those who have been released from prison find alternative housing. They will help families in danger of becoming homeless pay electric bills and find temporary shelter. Davis said the group is advocating for more homeless shelter beds.

Bartos said she hopes the vigil will educate the community on the need for more affordable housing and livable wages. For many of the homeless who died this past year, the vigil was “the only service they had,” Bartos said.

“Lives should not end in such a fashion,” she said.