Remember, Hope & Heal
J.Smith/ El Hispano
Philadelphia – As the fading evening twilight subsided into darkness, a few candles and a single floodlight threw a soft light over a crowd of some two to three hundred homeless men and women, formerly homeless and homeless advocates, gathering at the Thomas Paine Plaza Thursday, to observe what has become popularly known as, “Homeless Memorial Day.”
It was a sharp contrast to the bright lights and bustling shoppers of the nearby Christmas Village, as a crowd, many of them holding signs of deceased homeless, heard the familiar voice of a longtime advocate for the homeless, Sister Mary Scullion. She would open the event by praising outreach groups, “that go out every single day and night to save lives in bitter cold weather.”
Framing her remarks around the “holy season,” Sister Scullion spoke of this as a time of light piercing the “darkness,” and of “hope in the midst of our suffering world.”
Besides Sister Scullion, the nearly two-hour event drew a number of other speakers and performers, many of them having prominent roles in battling homelessness in Philadelphia for several decades. Among the public officials, both former Mayor Wilson Goode and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell expressed a commitment to ending homelessness and echoed a theme of “Remember, Hope and Heal.”
A Citation from City Councilwoman Blackwell recognized that “adequate housing is essential for healthy families and communities.”
During a recital of the names of 125 individuals who have either succumbed to the severe effects of homelessness or were leaders in supporting the homeless, Luis Garcia was one of the few Latino names remembered this year..
Describing it as a “scourge” that takes thousands of lives, Sister Scullion asserted that, “it’s a scandal in this wealthy country when we continue to have people that live and die on our streets,” And of those honored at this event, she noted that “most” of them died prematurely, due to a “lack of access to quality healthcare.”
“One of the leading causes of homelessness is the lack of access to quality healthcare,” she said. “Injury or serious illness particularly when coupled with the lack of housing can lead to disability,unemployment and the downward spiral called homelessness.”
“Once the homeless are in the streets, a person has a much greater vulnerability with their health. Those small health problems can quickly escalate into large ones,” continued Sister Scullion.
While acknowledging that “transformations and healing are possible,” Sister Scullion called for “just public policies,” and for Pennsylvania to, “ensure health care for all of its citizens.”\
Arriving in the United States in April of 1979 from a country he declined to identify, M. Santiago told El Hispano he had been homeless for thirty-four years.
Having struggled to overcome substance abuse, Mr. Santiago now works as a part-time Counselor of others with addiction problems. But the low wages he receives only allows him to rent a single room: “I move from place to place and I’m living under the the roof of somebody else because I don’t have a strong enough income to supply my own.”
A part-time cleaning woman, Nancy Colon referred to similar difficulties of renting an apartment, which she attributed to discriminatory treatment due to her boyfriend’s criminal record.
But for Ms. Colon, one of the major problems with homelessness is basically the lack of “respect” and personal affronts she faces daily. Recalling a recent incident she had when attempting use the restroom of a local hotel, Ms. Colon said she was told, “You’ve got to go.”
“They said it like you’re less of a person,” she said. “I don’t drink and I do drugs, but they treat you like you’re a low-life.”
ln praising the work of Johnathan Evans, who through his outreach and advocacy efforts through the Mental Health Association of SE Pennsylvania, touched the lives of innumerable homeless men and women, Susan Rogers recalled a statement made by Mr. Evans: “I see myself as candle light for people down the tunnel, to let them know that good things can happen.”
Dying on July 19th of this year, Ms. Rogers said of his work: “He did it with grace, he did it with love and he did it from his heart.” She added, that he saw himself as a “foot-soldier, to give people encouragement, and some hope that their lives can change.”
Living for a time in a cardboard box, Darrell Chapman recollected that his life of drugs and poor choices was turned around in 1991 by Rev. Henry G. Wells. It was through Rev. Wells that Chapman said he began to “respect myself and put my life together.”
Since that 1991 meeting, Mr. Chapman has worked in a variety of shelters and recovery houses, instilling in others the same kind of encouragement he received from Rev. Wells.
Mr. Chapman extolled the example of Rev. Wells, as the man who “guided me and gave me purpose. He gave me that sort of unconditional love and tough love that I really needed.”
Former Mayor Wilson Goode (1984-1992), remembered, “62 years ago,” how his mother fed a homeless man who sought help from their North Carolina home. So “moved by the experience” the former Mayor noted that, after the man left, “I ran down the road after him to give him all the money in my pocket.”
“It’s important that Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is not alone, and that all public officials begin to understand that no one in this city should be on our streets without a house and without food. Everyone born in this city and in this country should have a right to food on their table and a place to live and keep warm.”
Rafael Collazo, a Representative for “Sobriety Through Outpatient, Inc.” and internet radio commentator was instrumental in organizing the Homeless Memorial Day.