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Memorial service for homeless woman calls for understanding

Ellen Abbott

The deaths of two homeless people in Syracuse in the last week has put the spotlight on the people who live under bridges and overpasses of central New York. A memorial service for a woman who was found unconscious, and who later died, ended with calls for patience and help for the homeless.

Reverend John Manno, pastor of Saint James Catholic Church in Syracuse, led the memorial service in a small park. The park is only a short walk from the bridge that spans the homeless camp where Michelle Noce and others lived.

It's a hard life, says Sylvester Vazquez, who's been part of Syracuse's homeless population for five years. Vazquez says that it's a lifestyle that's become more dangerous.

"You got other homeless people who really don't care about nobody," Vazquez says. "They only care about themselves. They come in your camp while you are sleeping, they steal, destroy and even hurt you."

There are visitors who help, like John Tumino and his wife LeAnn. The couple regularly brings food to the homeless camps. But this is not the norm. As Tumino says, the general population has become callous of the plight of the homeless.

"I talked to a gentleman and he said to me, 'Why don't they go to the mission or why don't they just go there.' It's not that simple, 'cause they don't think that way," Tumino said. "When you're an addict, if it's alcohol or drugs, you're not thinking; you're just thinking about that next high or next buzz."

It's the hope of Sheila Austin, of Saint James Church, that from tragedy comes awareness of a community that is often invisible.

"We have not walked in their shoes," Austin said. "We do not know all the circumstances that went into why they're homeless. Mental illness, addictions, loss of jobs, a whole slew of things can lead to that fine line of finding yourself homeless. My hope is that we look at them in a less judgmental way."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.