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Homeless honored by candle light

SARASOTA -- For the 16th year in a row, the Rev. David Sutton read the names of homeless people who had passed away on the streets of Manatee and Sarasota counties.

In order to speak at the “Longest Night,” a homeless person’s memorial vigil held on the longest night of the year, he has to practice because every year he recognizes a name or two on the list.

This year he knew a handful of the 30 names ranging from 27 to 64-years-old and had to hold back tears as he read them out loud.

Deborah Wardrip, 50, for example was “the last person you’d think would be homeless,” Sutton said. “Debbie was a quite and soft spoken girl.”

He started crying when he read the name Ramon Zehr, 64.

“When he was sober he was the nicest guy,” Sutton said, about the man who had worked at the Salvation Army as a maintenance man.

A single candle was lit to remember those who’ve died. Songs were sung and prayers were said by the audience at the Salvation Army Center of Hope in Sarasota. Commissioner Carolyn Mason of Sarasota County, Commissioner Carol Whitmore of Manatee County and City of Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner all proclaimed Dec. 21 as National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

Kirschner said he hopes the community can work together this upcoming year and “bring this list down to a smaller number next time we gather.”

Among the about 150 people who attended were residents at the Salvation Army Center of Hope, including Joe Vasta, currently enrolled in the Transitional Development Program. Vasta went through rehabilitation and is on his way to getting his life together, he said.

For the 52-year-old who has been homeless off and on since he was 10-years-old, he feels hopeful knowing he is well on the road to recovery.

“The toughest decision I’ve made in my life was standing at those gates and walking in,” referring to his decision to go into rehab.

Vasta is planning to go to school to become a pastor and share his success story of living on the streets, being the victim of violent crimes and coming back from it all.

Sutton, who has been working with homeless people for about a decade, said the easy way to deal with the issue of hopelessness is simple: don’t think of it as a homeless problem because those who happen to be homeless are people too.

“Every homeless person has a story, everyone had a family, a goal, a dream,” he said.