RAHWAY/ELIZABETH, NJ - On December 19, at 7 p.m., a group of non-profit agencies and interfaith congregations will gather at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway for the fourth annual Homeless Memorial Vigil. 

This event, which is open to the public, is held on the eve of the day with the least amount of daylight and the longest night, December 20. The day has been chosen as a time to remember all homeless people who died on the cold streets or living in dangerous abandoned buildings during the past year due to their lack of shelter or care.  If we do not remember them, then who will?

“More often than not, most of us have the opportunity to say good-bye to friends and family on or after their passing and have closure,” said Pastor Carmine Pernini of Zion Lutheran  “The annual Homeless Vigil offers the opportunity to remember those who die on the streets(or in abandoned buildings).  Zion Lutheran  embraces the opportunity to have a hand in helping God’s children in any way we can.”

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The event is organized by the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council, which is associated with Community Access Unlimited. This vigil comes on the heels of a successful fourth annual Homeless Sabbath Weekend held across Union County held December 13-15, 2019. CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through comprehensive supports.

“This event is made all the more important because there is no holiday celebration for the men and women who lost their lives trying to make it to a higher place in this life,” said Leonard Prentice who experienced homelessness in Union County.

On the night of January 23, 2018, 459 people, including 41 people without shelter, experienced homelessness in Union County, according to NJ Counts 2018, the Point-In-Time count.  The Homeless Sabbath Weekend organizers believe that no one should be homeless for the holidays or at any time of the year.

“The housing crisis is a humanitarian issue that we cannot ignore,” says Geleen Donovan, Executive Director, Family Promise of Union County.  “Those of us providing homeless shelter and services witness the onslaught of desperation in numbers that are rising on a daily basis.”

The lack of affordable housing in Union County has precipitated a crisis causing working families to become homeless.  Due to cuts in state funding, shelter beds are being lost across the state and specifically in Union County.

The loss of the Plainfield YMCA shelter and the closure of Salvation Army shelter beds in Perth Amboy and some shelter beds in Elizabeth forces families and individuals experiencing homelessness to live in their cars, in storage units and in abandoned buildings.  These individuals and families are being abandoned and forced to live in places that we would all consider uninhabitable.

Simeria Dewalt, 36 years old, experienced homelessness in Union County with her four children said that it changed her life forever.  She became depressed and was suicidal while experiencing homelessness.  She and her four children now live in their own apartment in Elizabeth.  Says Simeria, “Now that I have an apartment, my kids and I have a permanent place to stay.  Housing is my life line and with it, I am able to raise my kids in a safe place with stability and peace and we have a place to call home.”  Simeria attends graduate school, pursuing her master’s degree in social work.  She volunteers for the Family Promise Union County program, her son graduated from high school and her three girls are attending school.

Rev. Carmine Pernini speaks about the city of Rahway, “This year, perhaps more than my previous six here, we at Zion have seen an influx of people knocking on the door of the church seeking assistance with rent, medical bills, and food.  Rahway has approximately 30 people who chronically go without shelter living outdoors, sometimes with small children, or in the train vestibule, or behind supermarkets which provide easy access to food that has been disposed of.  While the Homeless Vigil does not solve systemic homelessness, it gives people the opportunity to see outside of their own life and look briefly into the challenges of another person’s existence.  The hope, of course, is that we are so moved by the vigil to act, provide relief, and advocate for affordable housing and expanding the number of beds in the county address Union County’s homeless population.” 

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