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Remembering Philadelphia's homeless

If nothing else, homelessness should scare us into caring more.

DO ME A FAVOR: After you finish this column, spend the day keeping track of how many homeless people you see.

Look at the man huddled in the corner in the concourse between Suburban Station and City Hall.

Look at the frail young man rocking back and forth on the cold pavement outside the Dunkin' Donuts on Market Street.

Look at the woman with a toddler holding out a paper cup for spare change on Walnut.

And then ask yourself: How is it that we, a civilized society with great minds and deep pockets, still have people living and dying on the streets?

Why doesn't it bother us into crafting a long-term, lasting solution?

I'll tell you why it bothers me - because the fact that on any given day in Center City there are more than 300 people living on the streets, that in 2013 more than 100 homeless and formerly homeless people died in the shadows, says more about us than them.

That we are able to walk past people in desperate need day in and day out and regard them as a pile of rags looking for change doesn't just prove that something is really broken in us, it depresses the hell out of me.

And let's stop kidding ourselves about homelessness being so much a part of the urban fabric that we don't see it anymore, or that it's so complicated we don't know what to do other than shut it out.

You know why we turn away - because it's uncomfortable as hell, because if we're being honest with ourselves, it scares the bejesus out of us. Because that homeless man huddled in the corner, that homeless woman holding out a cup for change, that could be any of us, give or take a few missed paychecks, an unforeseen illness, a pitfall we didn't see coming. And deep down, we know it.

We like to think that we're so different - that "those people" have issues, and some do, no doubt. Substance abuse, mental illness. But you know what else they suffer from - a lack of access to health care, to opportunity.

And so I could throw numbers at you - so many numbers. On any given night, 5,000 people in Philadelphia are on the streets, in emergency shelters and in transitional housing. More than 50 percent of homeless who died in Philadelphia between 2009 and 2010 had no health insurance.

I could tell you heartbreaking stories of homeless men and women living on the streets or struggling to stay off them. Take 38-year-old Shahid Guyton, a star graduate from Ready, Willing & Able, a program to help formerly homeless and incarcerated individuals. His full-time job at a scrap yard ended in April. Since then, he's been piecing together jobs here and there to make the $300-a-month rent on a room. He knows how fragile his stability is, which is why he asked me to put the word out for anyone looking for a good employee.

"I won't let them down, I promise," he said.

I could suggest you attend today's homeless memorial at 4:30 p.m. outside the Municipal Services Building, where, at last count, 127 homeless and formerly homeless who died this year will be remembered. Advocates will champion the need for better health care, like the long-overdue medical recovery center for homeless that is scheduled to open in January.

And you should go, and at least hear the names of the forgotten spoken aloud. Because as Laura Weinbaum, of Project HOME, said: "What does it matter if the numbers of homeless are up or down if people are still out there?"

But none of it will matter until we take a long, hard look at the men and women huddled on the warm vents in LOVE Park and realize that they could be us, that often, except for the luck of the draw, they are us.

Phone: 215-854-5943

Twitter: @NotesFromHel