By Peder Schaefer
A blustery wind and sub forty temperatures didn’t keep two dozen people from coming out to Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Providence on November 22nd to celebrate the life of Kevin “Turtle” Alexander, who died on October 16 from a drug overdose.
Many of those that gathered at the vigil had known Turtle personally, either through being out on the streets with him, through assisting him with housing and shelter as caseworkers or by family relation.
“We have to treat people like they’re human beings and not a number,” said Thomas Joyce, the director of the East Bay Recovery Center, who spoke at the vigil. Joyce mentioned that there were 314 fatalities to drug overdoses last year in Rhode Island, with each one being preventable. “Each and every human life matters,” he said.
Pastor Brian Archibald led the service, which opened with prayer and closed with a circle of candles. Pastor Archie was homeless on the streets with Turtle for decades before he was able to get off the streets. “Whether they were homeless or not they were real, real people,” said Pastor Archie. “We all deserve a chance.”
There was also an opportunity for friends and family of Turtle to come forward and offer stories about his life. Friends spoke into a microphone over the rushing wind, while others listened in a half semi-circle, faces curled downward into coats and scarves.
“I was more like a mother to him than a sister,” said Marsha Alexander, Turtle’s sister. She said she was always getting calls from him and she willed him to try and get off the streets.
Others offered up how much Turtle loved Crystal Light, and how often he sat out on his favorite bench in front of the Marriott Hotel, looking out over Newport Harbor, where he spent most of his time while homeless. He was described as “upbeat, happy, humble, respectful” and a man who “loved his family.”
Paula Stoos, who works at Newport Mental Health as an outreach worker, recounted how Kevin would come into her office to talk, and would never take a gift unless he could really use it. She said he was part of the tight-knit Newport community, where people looked out for and counted on one another. “I loved Kevin,” she said. “It hurt me so much to hear what happened.”
Barbara Freitas, director of RIHAP, stressed that the lack of housing was so important to Turtle’s story and the stories of so many who die out on the streets. “It’s hard, it’s impossible, to get in recovery or stay sober when every night you are trying to survive… we need to continue to press legislators to ensure there is a funding stream to allow people to get housing,” she said.
At the end of the ceremony vigil-goers attempted to light candles, but the wind kept the wicks from catching. All held their unlit candles in a circle while Pastor Archie said some words and when he finished the wind roared up again and people scattered back out into the night.
Kevin “Turtle” Alexander, passed on October 16th.