Stephen M. Kersker Died Jan. 29, 2013 at age 63. We honor him as a son, an uncle, a veteran, an advocate, a friend and our brother. Steve was loving, charismatic, annoying, humble, spiritual, bizarre, generous, happy, athletic, disciplined, intelligent, and brave.
Edward, Diane and Tangerine Man are part of an invisible population -- St. Petersburg's homeless mentally ill. They are manic depressives and schizophrenics. Most of them won't take their medication or can't get any, and because of that, they wander off or become so disruptive that the shelters and the assisted living facilities have no choice but to ask them to leave.
Loaded down with used blankets, a balding, thickly muscled man with a cross on his baseball cap threads his way to the middle of the dining room. He is Steve Kersker, director of Loving Others Together, the group that coordinates the nightly meals at the shelter. They appear at the door one or two at a time, red-faced and weary. Most are middle-aged men and women, but there are several families with children. They all seem to know the drill. Get your ticket, find a seat and wait. It's just a large dining hall. Folding chairs and tables. No pictures, no mirrors. No yelling or cursing allowed.
"Who's out on the street tonight?" he asks. Dozens of people get up and move quickly toward him. He hands out all 18 blankets, then gives out every donated coat, jacket and sweater he has. It's a full house tonight at St. Vincent de Paul. Cold weather tends to ensure that. Well over a hundred people are here, and they're still filtering in.
In the kitchen, volunteers slap baloney and cheese sandwiches together as fast as they can. The crowd is larger than anyone expected, so Kersker makes another trip to his car for the loaves of bread he was saving for the next day's meal.
It doesn't matter how they got here, Kersker says, although it would be nice if more of them made eye contact with the homeless people. Or even talked to them. If they broke that barrier between those who can go home after dinner and those who can't.
"Whenever I'm driving down the street, I always beep my horn and wave," Kersker says without looking up from his work. "It makes people feel like somebody knows who they are. Like somebody cares."
He knows the feeling. Once, he was on the other side of the serving line. He lost his home because of his mental illness, but managed to find room in a psychiatric hospital and a treatment center until he got better. Took him two years.
He never went hungry or without a place to sleep. But in every other way, he has been down this road. He knows that worse than the hunger or the cold is the shame.
"It took me a long time to realize I didn't have to be ashamed because I had a mental illness."
I spent a significant amount of my childhood with Steve and visited him at a reunion or two ago. He was unusual. He played trumpet in the band and a combo I put together with Randy Clark. We say James Bond movies together. His father delivered half the babies in St. Pete and rode a motor cycle to travel to deliver them. Steve and I did bad deeds like dumping garbage cans in alleys and blowing up his parents pool with gun power. As an adult, he had a deep passion for the disadvantaged people and led homeless to protest in the parks. He was brilliant, strange and fascinating. He shared/led the goth part of my childhood.
Mary Shofi (Volpe)