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After a killing, a meeting in Suburban Station’s ‘Living Room’ for our city’s most vulnerable

As our city grows more polished each day with revival and development, we too often ignore the people swept aside by it.

A Living Room regular gets a hug from Sister Eileen Sizer,
A Living Room regular gets a hug from Sister Eileen Sizer,Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Every weekday morning, souls who live in and around Suburban Station haul their few belongings through the maze of the station, through the cacophony of the Hub of Hope, the innovative homeless service center there, and make their way to a comfortable back room that feels, well, like a living room.

And that's what it's called.

The warm space with cozy chairs and tables spread with homemade cakes and puzzles and board games and a radio that plays classical and jazz is somewhere Center City's homeless population can drop their belongings and their burdens and breathe, even just for a few hours.

<< READ MORE: Homeless for decades, she now persuades others to come inside

Where Linda Costello, who is 61 and newly homeless, can share with friends — or family, as they prefer to call each other in the Living Room — wonderful news: After three months sleeping in a chair in a shelter, she has finally landed a bed.

And where Rudy Jones Bay, 59, the group's resident poet, can recite verse he composes on the streets, but only, of course, after a properly laudatory introduction: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Poetic Justice," they say.

Or, as Brandy Jones, 43, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has been homeless since May but smiles so easily, says, somewhere everyone can just take "a deep breath of fresh air."

A place to take a break. And it is a service as important as the health care and food and showers and social services that Project HOME's Hub of Hope, which opened in January, provides up to 400 people a day.

"We don't live in a fairyland," said Sister Eileen Sizer, coordinator of the Living Room, before Friday's meeting. "But we wanted to build a place where people really wanted to come."

And she and her program director, Angie Lewis — and the few dozen people who fill Living Room chairs and couches each morning — have done just that, creating a space where people can process pain and trauma they experience daily on the streets, or at least leave it behind for a while.

"Outside of these doors is nothing but chaos," said Jones. "You walk in these doors, you feel nothing but compassion."

<< READ MORE: In from the cold — after a hard life

But Friday, that vulnerability could not be set aside, even in the safety of the Living Room. After the poetry and the laughter — and talk about the planned softball game of staff vs. guests — conversation turned to the homeless man who was stabbed to death early Thursday on a Jefferson Station platform. The man has yet to be identified, but police say video shows another man known to sleep in the station attacking him during an argument. Police have yet to make an arrest.

No one in the Living Room said they knew the victim's name. But when the news traveled through the homeless community, they heard he was a nice guy — and that they would recognize him if they saw a photo. Anyway, they didn't really need the dead man's name to grieve, they said. It is the type of violence, they said, that could happen to any of them.

"No one has any idea what it's like to be homeless unless you walk in these shoes," said Costello. "And they are no easy shoes to walk."

<< READ MORE: At Philly transit hub, stabbing highlights the dangers faced by city's homeless

As our city grows more polished each day with revival and development, we too often ignore the people swept aside by it. Now, the gleam of the revival quite literally projects itself onto our city's homeless. Those who sleep along East Market lift their faces to the glow of giant LED TV screens that now tower above.

"Moving Forward," blared an Uber ad on the screens Friday.

Well, sort of.

We don't move forward if we ignore the voices of our most vulnerable — like the voices in the Living Room.

"How can you advocate for us if you don't listen?" a Living Room regular named Miss Joanne asked.

We can't, of course.

But on Friday, they listened to one another, this family inside the Living Room.

They enjoyed Sister Eileen's pound cakes, and listened to the strains of Vivaldi from a classical CD that Channing Smith, another regular, found on the pavement outside Macy's.

"All the pain you see around the streets," said regular Vonnie Cunningham as a train thundered above. "I come inside, and I sit and listen, and it gives me hope."

And soon it was time to go back outside, until morning, when they could come back, at least, to the Living Room.