(Photo by Maggie Heffernan)
Moving into a transitional housing unit was a difficult step for Kevin Boyle. He disliked the restrictions of the living arrangement, but, determined to not end up back on the street, rose each day committed to working toward a better future.
“You always have an opportunity to live two lives in one lifetime,” he used to say.
Kevin died of a drug overdose four months later, but his legacy and resolve live on. And on Wednesday night, over a hundred people gathered at Thomas Paine Plaza to honor Kevin and the nearly 200 other Philadelphians from the homeless community who passed away in 2016.
“Many of the people we honor tonight died in inhumane conditions, while others had recently made significant progress,” said Project HOME founder Sr. Mary Scullion. “We recognize that everyone has a unique story. However, homelessness is more than an individual problem.”
The service occurred on Homeless Memorial Day, an annual event recognized in over 150 locations across the U.S. Philadelphia’s memorial, organized by Project HOME, featured multiple local officials as speakers and focused its message on the new federal administration.
Throughout the memorial, clipboards were passed around with instructions on how to write to Congress about increasing funding and support for homeless services.
“We may face serious cuts to the already insufficient funding that helps people find a way out of the cycle of homelessness,” said Scullion. “But when I look out at this crowd, I see hundreds of reasons for hope.”
One reason to hope, said Project HOME’s VP of public affairs and strategic initiatives, Laura Weinbaum, is Philadelphia’s relatively low rate of chronic street homelessness among America’s biggest cities. Although Philadelphia has a poverty rate that hovers around 25 percent, only about 15,000 people access shelter in Philadelphia every year, according to Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services.
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“Much work has been done in recent years to increase access to and opportunities for affordable housing and shelters around the city,” said Weinbaum. “Very few people who experience homelessness in Philadelphia actually die on the street.”
Philadelphia City Council members Helen Gym and Derek Green, in addition to representatives from homeless outreach groups Pathways to Housing PA, One Step Away and Impact Services, helped read the list of names of the people who died. According to Weinbaum, there was a higher number of registered deaths this year, largely due to the stronger relationships Project HOME has developed with its community providers.
“Individuals who were directly affiliated with Project HOME were honored with their full names because they are people we knew personally,” explained Weinbaum. “Government sources also provided names of people we didn’t know personally, so, to respect their privacy, we only read their initials aloud.”
Names included people who were homeless at their time of death, people who had previously experienced homelessness and people who worked as advocates within Project HOME.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who recently formed a workgroup to address public space issues including chronic homelessness, emphasized personal accountability in his remarks to the crowd.
“We have a responsibility for our brothers on the street, and service to others is where we find happiness,” said Kenney.
Many attendees held signs with the names of those who had died throughout the memorial. Others held candles and swayed to the various musical performances from local artists and congregations.
“Let us humble ourselves,” said motivational speaker Mel Wells from One Day At A Time toward the end of the program, “because we know that it could be me or you who someday ends up on the streets.”
To close the event, musicians from Circle of Hope Church sang “This Little Light of Mine.” And, singing “Out there on the streets, I’m gonna let it shine,” they reminded the crowd that, in the spirit of Kevin Boyle, they all have a shot at a second life in this lifetime.-30-
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