By Erin Delmore
“It’s like my first time being homeless,” said Ramon Aponte.
Thirty-four-year-old Aponte thought his homeless friends were joking when they told him how cold it gets on the streets in winter.
“It’s real cold out there. Last night I slept in the back of a church that’s helping me out. You know, it was cold. I had two blankets on me, and it was still cold. And I had this jacket on, two jackets on, and it was still cold,” he said.
Aponte is one of more than 500 homeless people in Union County. Come winter, the struggle he endures daily can turn deadly.
Congregants from all different religious backgrounds and nonprofit leaders gathered in Springfield to hold a candlelight vigil memorializing the lives lost to exposure over the last year.
“We want to give them some dignity and also raise awareness for the problem of homelessness here in New Jersey with the hope that people can band together to work to end homelessness in this county,” said Holy Cross Lutheran Church Pastor Dave Knecht.
Events like this one are held all over the country at the end of December around the winter solstice — the longest night of the year.
“You don’t see the homeless population until you go and work at one of the food shelters or the food pantries. Then you realize that these people that are hidden all day are out. It’s our goal to find a place for them to call home and to not have to be hidden,” said Temple Sha’arey Shalom Rabbi Renee Edelman.
Interfaith leaders shared stories about how working to lift up the homeless population has impacted their lives.
“My church participates in Operation Warm Heart, and our homeless guests are here tonight. So we’re out on the town, if you will. But they need a lot of help. I think during this time of year, it’s really important to think about those who are in need, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Zion Lutheran Church Reverend Carmine Pernini.
“They give me strength, the people who are in my life now, that I was just talking to. They got me on my feet,” Aponte said.
The church community is trying to help Aponte stay warm and healthy. He’s on his way to a seven-day detox center nearby. Come February, he and his wife are expecting a baby girl.
“I think that’s my strength, my first child, and I’m just happy about it. You know, I just can’t stop crying about it,” Aponte said.