benjamin-wright-web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Smitty – the only name he is known by – left his rural Georgia home by bus 25 years ago seeking a better life in Miami. He did not find it. Now 54, he has adjusted to living in Miami’s streets with a group of five he calls “my only family” for about 14 years.

Daniel Villanueva worked at different jobs, including police officer and government worker, but lately the 39 year-old has been living in the streets also, “a difficult life that must be planned strategically,” spending his time reading, keeping safe, seeking shelter and looking for a job.

Willie Benjamin Wright, 65, only recently found an apartment in Overtown. The North Carolina native and Vietnam veteran arrived in Miami after the war to become rich. 

“I then discovered that for that to happen I would have to sell crack or worse,” said Wright. “But crime was not my thing so I had to do my best to survive. And it wasn’t easy.”

Smitty, Villanueva and Wright were among some 110 people who paused for the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day Candlelight Vigil and Memorial Service on Dec. 17 to remember the 80 homeless people who died on the streets of Miami this past year.

The vigil, in its 10th year, was held at the Stephen P Clark Building, 111 NW First St., Miami, in conjunction with the Formerly Homeless Forum and sponsored by the Homeless/Formerly Homeless Forum, Miami Coalition for the Homeless and the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

More than 100 communities nationwide held the vigil to bring attention to homelessness and rededicate efforts to end it.

Some 847 homeless people live in the streets of Miami-Dade County, according to Ronald L. Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.

“The street and shelter populations are counted twice each year. When we began 18 years ago, the street homeless population was about 8,000. We are working hard to reduce the numbers even more,” Book said.

He described Miami as “probably the only urban community in the U.S. not at its height in its street homelessness in this economic downturn.”

The trust operates on a $41 million annual budget, Book said, maintaining 6,000 beds in its continuum of care.

The youngest homeless person remembered during the vigil was 18-year-old Raven Davis; the oldest was Loretta Fuller, who was 72. The average lifespan for the unsheltered homeless is 51 years, while that of the average American is 78, according to Book.

Smitty said he was devastated to hear the names and ages read out during the vigil. “We do the best we can and when one of us gets sick, we try and get help. But, most times, we fear that people will look at us strangely or turn away. So we end up refusing to go to hospitals, even though they have to treat us.”

Cynthia Roby may be reached at

Photo: Willie Benjamin Wright