St. Joseph of the Pines will host its eighth annual Candlelight Vigil for the Homeless in Southern Pines Downtown Park at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 18.

The event is part of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day to raise awareness of the tragic impact of homelessness on individuals, families and communities, and to remember those who have died as a result of being homeless.

“We need this terrible situation to receive as much attention as possible,” said Lori Portfleet, president at St. Joseph of the Pines. “No single act better reflects our mission of being a compassionate and transforming healing presence within our community than this vigil. It hits the core.”

Casey Saunders, homeless liaison for Moore County Schools, will talk about the school system’s Families in Transition (FIT) program.

“We have changed the name as a school community … to get away from using the term ‘homeless,’ ” Saunders said. “My job responsibilities include training school staff on identifying students and families who are living in transition. My goal as a liaison, and with the help of a great team of social workers, is to support these families in any way to help make them successful in school.”

St. Joseph of the Pines asks attendees to bring new and gently used winter clothing – in both adult and youth sizes – for distribution to the homeless from its Mobile Rural Health “semi.” Examples include coats, scarves, jackets, blankets, sweaters, hats, socks, gloves, shirts, mittens, sweatshirts and sweatpants.

“We’re talking about one of the basic necessities of life – having clothing,” Portfleet said. “It’s up to all of us to address this important issue.”

There are an estimated 800 homeless people in Moore County, although the exact number is unclear.

“A lot of people say we don’t have a homeless problem in Moore County,” said Archie Stevens, a chaplain at St. Joseph of the Pines. “Yes, we do. We have a lot of homeless people here. Sometimes, it’s just overlooked. We hope this event will shed some light on the issue.”

Ted Natt, community benefit and communications coordinator at St. Joseph of the Pines, noted that many of the homeless in Moore County “are families, women, and children.”

“Many are barely getting by,” Natt said. “To think of children going to school just to get warm and have a meal should motivate all of us to want to help.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that compared to the general population, people who are homeless are at greater risk of infectious disease and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse. They are also more often victims of violence and have a mortality rate four to nine times higher than those who are not homeless.

Each year since 1990, on or near the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Consumer Advisory Board and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council have co-sponsored National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness.

About 200 communities in the U.S. are expected to participate this year, with most of the ceremonies occurring on Dec. 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

To donate winter clothing before or after the vigil, please call (910) 246-3125.

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