Memorial service offered for homeless Syracuse man who died in fire
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Under an overcast sky and an overpass rumbling with traffic, family, friends and friends like family gathered Sept. 21 to remember Timothy Wilkin.
Wilkin, 40, had been living in the homeless encampment under the Interstate 690 bridge on McBride Street for a few months, his friend Jay Patana said. Wilkin was the first person Patana met when he moved to Syracuse 13 years ago, he said, and the two used to live together in an apartment on Butternut Street. Patana also said he was the last person to see Wilkin on the evening of Sept. 14. Later that night, Wilkin died in a fire in an encampment under another nearby overpass.
The Sept. 21 service was led by Father John Manno, pastor of St. James Church in Syracuse, and arranged by Sheila Austin, coordinator of the parish’s Emmaus homeless outreach ministry. Emmaus volunteers know many of the people who live in the camp from their work at the Oxford Street Inn homeless shelter and on the streets of Syracuse, Austin said.
“It was important for us to provide this community, Tim’s friends, with a memorial service,” she said.
About 35 people, from those who knew Wilkin best to those who did not know him at all, crowded around a simple wooden cross and single burning candle to sing, pray and honor his life.
Patana spoke of the struggles of being homeless and recalled his friend as the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back, a man with a heart of gold.
“Tim is in everyone’s hearts,” he added. “He’s here now, probably laughing and smiling.”
Wilkin’s mother, Mary Jane, who lives in Florida, arrived in Syracuse just before the service. She thanked everyone for honoring her son and spoke lovingly about him, a man who was quiet but very funny, with a “sly, cool humor” that made people enjoy being with him. She did not know Wilkin was living on the street at the time, she later said. She and her husband, Richard, will be bringing their son’s ashes to Vermont for burial there.
The service closed with the Our Father, attendees joining hands in a circle to offer the prayer over the roar of traffic overheard. White carnations were laid at the foot of the cross in remembrance of Wilkin and his life.
As Austin and other Emmaus volunteers passed out coffee and food to those who needed it, Father Manno reflected on the witness the day’s service offered.
“Over 300 people — men, women and children — are homeless every night [in Syracuse],” he said. “It’s a very real need. I think Tim’s death brings that out. It’s a great witness to the people about the needs of so many in our city.”
He said, too, that though the service was a memorial, it was also intended to be a celebration of God’s gift of life.
“We have to show our appreciation for every life and our value of life at all stages,” he said. “Every life is important.”