Philadelphia remembers those who died homeless

Under the steel towers of Philadelphia’s Center City construction, a candlelight vigil was held to commemorate Homeless Memorial Day. The Homeless Advocacy Project, in conjunction with over 25 organizations that include Project H.O.M.E., The Salvation Army, The Tenant Union Representative Network, Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Dignity Housing, brought close to 100 concerned citizens to the doorstep of City Hall in Dilworth Plaza to remember the 71 men and women who lost their lives due to homelessness this year.

Homeless Memorial Day in Philadelphia
photo by Calista Condo

The Next American City attended the event, where keynote speakers discussed issues ranging from affordable low-income housing to the disastrous results of city H.U.D. budget cuts. Connie Naylor, an activist from the Travelers Aid Society of Philadelphia, addressed the crowd with a call to end homelessness; sharing her own stories and experiences as a former resident of city shelters. In an interview with TNAC, Naylor said that even though the city is aware of the rising homeless population, they could be doing more to solve the problem: “The city is able to build all of these wonderful condominiums downtown, in the Fairmount section and the museum areas, but what have they done to build affordable housing for people like me who don’t make a lot of money? I live on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and if I didn’t have subsidized housing, I would probably be back in the shelter or living under a bridge somewhere … People are quick to speak up when there are too many homeless people in their neighborhood, but nobody wants to talk about what to do about the problem. Some of these homeless people need medical and physical help. That’s why most of these people died, they were physically ill and there’s nobody to help them.”

After a welcome address by Dignity Housing executive director Alicia Christian and remarks and remembrances by The Trans-health Information Project, the names of all 71 men and women who died homeless this year were announced in a roll call. Their names were written on signs which were brought to the center of the crowd as they were called.

Gili Ronen, a representative from the office of mayor-elect Michael A. Nutter (who could not attend due to out-of-town obligations) read a letter reflecting his strong commitment to the poverty issue and his administration’s solutions. “We need to improve our homeless shelters. We can no longer tolerate a situation where people without a home would rather sleep on the streets than take refuge in a shelter. When I take office in January, I’m going to order a full review of our homeless shelters and establish new standards they will all have to meet. We need to provide more affordable housing as well as more supportive housing. Supportive housing is necessary for the most vulnerable people in our communities such as victims of domestic violence. To more effectively generate affordable housing development, I have already committed to fully funding the housing trust fund and to reform our property tax system.”

Sister Mary Scullion, Project H.O.M.E.
Sister Mary Scullion of Project H.O.M.E.
photo by Calistia Condo

Aaron Couch, a volunteer from The Philadelphia Independent Media Center, talked with TNAC about the priorities of the national budget and how it manifests in Philadelphia’s homeless problem.

“We’re spending most of our money on defense, but a new study shows that 25% of our homeless are veterans … Our public school systems are severely under-funded while we spend one billion a day in Iraq … The rise in homelessness population in Philadelphia comes at a time when the center city industry and the condominium industry are booming. That wealth is not trickling down. This all leads to homelessness and neighborhood deterioration. This event calls for us to recommit ourselves to the people whose lives are stranded out here.”

In Philadelphia alone, there are more than 15,000 men, women and children utilizing Philadelphia’s homeless system. Unfair rent increases, lack of educational funding, crime, lack of health and psychological services, ignoring poorer sections of the city, displacing the poor to help promote tourism, and racial inequality have all been cited as direct causes of Philadelphia’s growing homeless population.

Do you think the solutions presented by the mayor-elect will work? Will funding the housing trust and reforming property tax be enough to account for massive cuts to social health programs and the H.U.D.?

Tags: jeffrey hill, homeless, city hall, homeless vigil, trans-health information project, dignity housing, michael a. nutter, died homeless