Published: December 24, 2008
Updated: May 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM
The balloons rose as dusk fell and Venus grew visible in the darkening sky.There was nothing unusual or special about the balloons themselves, but on this evening their release took on a special meaning. They represented 52 men and 32 women who had died homeless in Pasco County in the past two years.The balloon release served as a symbolic ending to a Homeless Memorial Day service sponsored by the Coalition for the Homeless in Pasco County and held Monday at Gulf Coast Community Care's shelter for women and children in Hudson.Michael Bernstein, president of Gulf Coast Community Care, spoke of meeting homeless women whose stories made him realize "there but for the grace of God go I.""No one's immune from cancer, losing a job or heartache," Bernstein said.Homeless Memorial Day, a national event, served a dual purpose. It was a time to pay tribute to homeless people who have died, but also an opportunity to put a spotlight on the needs of the homeless people still living."This gathering reminds us we are still here for a reason and a purpose," said the Rev. Dan Campbell, president of the Coalition for the Homeless in Pasco County.Organizers of the event said the coalition and shelters are in need of food, blankets, clothing and other items that they can pass on to the needy.The Homeless Memorial Day service featured live music by Red X, a Christian praise band. Among those in attendance was Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri.A large portion of the service, though, focused on people who have experienced homelessness or work with those who have.Cathy Ruggiero, a former homeless person, discussed her struggle to overcome drug problems and her efforts to find steady employment."Today I'm 269 days clean," she said.Jeff Fries of Elisha Ministries, a transitional facility for homeless people, spoke about three deceased homeless people he knew.There was Dennis, who dreamed of riding a motorcycle north, but died before he had the chance. There was Victor, a big man with an imposing presence but a "loving heart." There also was Colleen, who was killed walking across U.S. 19.Leslie Stokes of Home With a Heart, an international organization that serves veterans, said she experienced homelessness twice in her life, once by choice and once by circumstance.As a college student, she decided to pose as a homeless person and spend time in a shelter to see what it was like."It was eye opening," she said.On another occasion, while in Thailand, she was robbed and found herself without money or a passport. So for a while, she said, she was homeless in a country where she couldn't speak the language.The Rev. Phillip Johnson, pastor of Suncoast Pentecostal Church, told those in attendance that a person's value doesn't come from possessions."We are given value in the eyes of God from the time of our birth," he said.Eugene Williams, director of the Coalition for the Homeless in Pasco County, said the number of homeless people is growing as the economy continues to sour. "It's really unbelievable," Williams said.A count of the homeless takes place every two years and the next count is scheduled for January. At the last count, Pasco had about 4,000 homeless people, but Williams expects to exceed that this time."I know it's going to be higher," he said. "We are getting better at counting them, too."