ATLANTIC CITY — A crowd gathered Monday afternoon in front of the William L. Gormley AtlantiCare HealthPlex, some leaning on each other for comfort and others raising glowing candles into the air as they swayed to the lyrics of Avalon’s “Light a Candle.”
Many were there to seek help themselves and honor the memory of people who died while homeless in 2017.
“I want to wake up and hope that today is the day,” said Sandy Festa, executive director of the healthplex. “What I mean by that is, I hope the person who needed drug treatment yesterday got the treatment they need. I hope the person who was hungry got the food that they need.”
AtlantiCare Mission HealthCare held its 12th annual candlelight vigil ahead of national Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. The day has been observed in cities across the country on or close to Dec. 21 — the first day of winter and the longest night of the year — every year since its inception in 1990.
Festa said advocates at AtlantiCare have worked with organizations such as the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, Covenant House and Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties to increase awareness on how the harsh winter conditions can impact people who are homeless, and provide supportive services.
There were an estimated 8,532 homeless men, women and children across the state as of Jan. 24, according to Monarch Housing Associates’ annual NJ Counts report.
The report showed there was a 4.6 percent decrease in the number of homeless people counted in 2017 from the previous year, but there was a 30.6 percent increase in the number of chronically homeless people.
Vanessa Vitolo, who grew up in Absecon and graduated from Holy Spirit High School, said she knows the struggle and hopelessness that can come with living on the streets while also battling an addiction to heroin.
She told the crowd about how a prescription for an opioid painkiller led to an addiction where she left her home, family and friends for a life on the streets of Atlantic City.
“The hopelessness that you feel, I can relate to that,” she said, “but I also want you to know, I sat across from the president of the United States in March and I told him, three years ago I was homeless on the streets of Atlantic City and today I’m sitting across from you fighting for the people who feel like they’ve been forgotten.”
Vitolo is in long-term recovery and works as a community outreach coordinator at Victory Bay Recovery Center in Laurel Springs, Camden County. She has also appeared alongside Gov. Chris Christie in the statewide ReachNJ.gov addiction help campaign.
The Rev. Jon Thomas, of the Parish of Saint Monica in Atlantic City, led a prayer before AtlantiCare volunteers read the names of people who died homeless in 2017, including many who also suffered from a substance use disorder.
Natasha Postal, of Egg Harbor Township, sang “Light a Candle” by Avalon as the crowd held electronic candles in memory of those lost. AtlantiCare officials, as well as organizations such as Angels in Motion, gave out coats, other clothes and blessing bags to attendees who are in need this season.
“We want to continue to make a difference,” Festa said.