Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, city officials and and hundreds of others braved the wind and rain Thursday night to honor the memory the 270 homeless Philadelphians who died this past year.
With candles lit inside the darkened sanctuary of the Arch Street Church across the street from City Hall, hundreds gathered for an hourlong annual service commemorating Homeless Memorial Day.
Similar services are held across the country in nearly 150 cities. The events coincide with the first day of winter as a reminder of the plight of the homeless who face falling temperatures in the depth of the colder months.
“Nothing is more important than fighting homelessness,” said Blackwell, who led a call-and-response reading of a Call to Action to end homelessness in the city. “I don’t believe that America will be the nation it can be, or that our city will be the city that it can be, as long as we have people sleeping on the streets.
“It’s a matter of will, not money,” she added. “We have the money to do it. But we haven’t made the commitment to do it or demonstrated the political will to do it. And that is why people die … It’s absolutely wrong.”
With the theme “Remember, Hope, Heal and Fight,” the event featured vocalists and personal reflections by residents who shared stories of life and death as well as struggles and triumphs inside the ornately decorated and dimly lit church sanctuary.
About three-quarters of the way through the service, candles were lit and there was an interfaith reading of a Psalm of Lament by the Rev. Schaunel Steinnagel and Jackie Chapman both of the Welcome Church; Mecca Robinson of Forget Me Knot Youth Services; and Rabbi Eli Freedman, Rodeph Shalom.
It was followed by a reading of names of about 270 people who died homeless on Philadelphia’s streets in 2018.
Almost 600,000 people experienced homelessness during a particular night in January 2017, according to a point-in-time count by the city’s Office of Homeless Services.
Just how many homeless there are in Philadelphia is up for debate. A federal report issued in early December estimated there were 5,788 homeless people in the city, up 1.7 percent from the previous year. Of that number, city data counted 1,083 living on the street.
The federal report also said Philadelphia had the 13th largest homeless population this year — something city officials were touting not long after the report was released.
This is counterintuitive to what is certain about Philadelphia: The city has the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 10 most populous cities, with roughly 400,000 people living below the poverty rate.