Tuesday, December 6, 2022

‘Remembering family’: After five deaths, friends honor Williamsburg’s homeless

The air was a cool 40 degrees Fahrenheit as Jason Thornton stood in the grass holding an unlit white candle, looking out at six lantern-lit tents in a row.

Surrounded by over 100 other people, Thornton stood in silence as a single bell rang six times. As the bell rang, the light in each tent went out.

The third ring – coupled with a blue and white tent – memorialized Thornton’s friend, Lonnie E. Dove, a 55-year-old man who was once homeless in Williamsburg. Dove died July 7, after having lived in a permanent home for over a year, and was found on the William & Mary campus.

Just one hour after sunset Thursday, a large group of people wearing coats and mittens gathered on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize five men and women, including Dove, who died in 2017 and had lived through homelessness in Williamsburg.

Those gathered remained still as a speaker read six names aloud: Edward Lee Barnes, Fernando Garcia, Lonnie E. Dove, Ginger Lynn McCartney Heath, Laura Lee Griffin and “neighbors unknown.”

Part of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, the winter solstice event remembers those who have died across the country while homeless or after being homeless.

In Williamsburg, formerly homeless people, leaders in the faith community, and friends of those who have died spoke Thursday night to honor those who had died.

One man, Frank Maurer, 49, shared his own story of homelessness Thursday.

“Being one who has ‘been there,’ I know what these honored and remembered few experienced and endured every day,” Maurer, a Navy veteran, said. “It is no longer about living. It is about surviving.”

‘It’s important that he not be forgotten’

When Dove passed away, he had lived in his own apartment for a year-and-a-half, been sober for 16 months, and found friends and family in the faith community.

Six tents sit in a row on the lawn of Williamsburg Christian Church. On Dec. 21, 2017, a National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day ceremony took place on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize those who have died. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Six tents sit in a row on the lawn of Williamsburg Christian Church. On Dec. 21, 2017, a National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day ceremony took place on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize those who have died. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

“It’s important that he not be forgotten,” Thornton said. “And that’s the thing about living in homelessness. People can up and disappear and nobody notices.”

When a woman walking her dog found Dove’s body on the William & Mary campus, Thornton was hurt and angry.

Thornton met Dove in July 2015, about two years before his death on July 7. At the time, Dove was homeless and living in a hotel on Richmond Road.

For two years, the men bonded over coffee and lunch. A friendship that had once been awkward and reserved grew into something closer to family.

For Thornton, Dove’s life is a story of victory.

Dove’s life also broadened Thornton’s understanding of privilege, and what it means to be dealt a bad hand.

“Lonnie also taught me a lot about myself,” Thornton said. “I recognize there have been times in my life when I choose to keep a distance from people because of my ignorance, or because of different assumptions I made.”

“My relationship with Lonnie taught me that you can learn something from everybody. And everybody has value.”

‘I was struck by how insightful he was’

In a short five years of friendship, Barnes, 59, taught Ashley Willis many lessons about friendship.

Ashley Willis speaks at the homeless persons' memorial ceremony. On Dec. 21, 2017, a National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day ceremony took place on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize those who have died. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Ashley Willis speaks at the homeless persons’ memorial ceremony. On Dec. 21, 2017, a National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day ceremony took place on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize those who have died. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Willis, Community of Faith Mission executive director, attended the ceremony Thursday night – not as an employee of Community of Faith, but as a friend of Barnes’.

When Willis met Barnes, he was homeless and struggling with addiction.

But Barnes also was very insightful and tied to his faith, able to quote Bible passages and discuss religion with ease.

“I was struck by how insightful he was, and how much he liked to talk about the scriptures, talk about the Bible,” Willis said. “He could quote large passages. One of his favorites was the Book of Ephesians in the New Testament. He could quote large passages, and focused on the ones about living in the light, being children of the light, and putting old ways behind you.”

Barnes not only spoke about the Bible, but also was well-read on politics, science and other topics, Willis said.

Barnes died April 28, Willis said.

Willis, her husband, and Barnes had an “unusual” friendship that was sometimes tumultuous, but Willis said they learned a lot from each other.

“We learn about the value of relationships in the time we get to spend with people,” Willis said. “Regardless of how those situations ultimately work out, you try not to lose sight of any day you get to spend poring into somebody’s life, and them poring into yours.”

Although Barnes and Willis took a break from their friendship for a period of time before his death, Willis said their last interaction gave her “great joy” and closure.

“I am very, very thankful that throughout the course of time I knew him – the good and uplifting, and the dark and low times – I am so thankful that last time we talked was really good,” Willis said.

‘I could be one of those we are here to remember’

For Maurer, homelessness was a way of life for seven years. He has been living in his own apartment for several years, but still carries wisdom from his years of living on the streets.

Frank Maurer, a formerly homeless person, speaks at the homeless persons' memorial ceremony. On Dec. 21, 2017, a National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day ceremony took place on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize those who have died. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
Frank Maurer, a formerly homeless person, speaks at the homeless persons’ memorial ceremony. On Dec. 21, 2017, a National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day ceremony took place on the lawn of the Williamsburg Christian Church to memorialize those who have died. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

“With just a few minor changes in my story, I could be one of those we are here to remember tonight, instead of being one doing the remembering,” Maurer said.

On Thursday, Maurer spoke of support systems and faith, and giving a helping hand to those living in homelessness. Without a support system of his own he would not have been able to escape the cycle, he said.

Maurer’s struggle with homelessness started after his mother died in 2006. He had been taking care of her full-time, and could not pay all her bills after she was gone.

Eviction soon became a reality for Maurer.

Maurer spent years couch-surfing, living on the streets and staying in shelters. He met several friends along the way including Doug Maness and Tommy Millirons, who were also both homeless in the Williamsburg area.

Maurer is also not unfamiliar with loss: Both Maness and Millirons died in the last three years.

During the ceremony, Maurer remembered those who died as friends.

“To me, it’s almost like remembering family,” Maurer said.

“You could use a lot of words to describe those who have passed: Vagrants, bums, panhandlers. But there are only two words I usually use. One is friend, and two is family.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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