The sun gave off no heat and just a flash of orange light as freezing do-gooders sang Christmas carols Monday evening in Fairhill to an encampment of homeless heroin addicts.
The singers, many from Home Quarters and Friends, a nonprofit faith-based community group, stood on the edge of the infamous El Campamento, a tent city of 75 to 120 addicts beside the Conrail tracks.
No one from inside the camp was visible as the sun set. The singers took it as a matter of faith that their renditions of "O Holy Night" and "Feliz Navidad" were penetrating the twilight.
Suddenly, a lone figure appeared from out of the near-darkness, walking toward the wan, $12.99 artificial tree that the Home Quarters folks had placed carefully on the muddy ground carpeted with used needles.
Jorge Lugo, 26, of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, was drawn by the voices and the tree, and just had to know who was lugging Christmas to this forsaken spot.
"This makes me feel like we are something, that we are people," said Lugo, who has lived in the camp for two years after being lured to Philadelphia under the false pretense that he could swim in fancy pools and ride horses at a local recovery house, all while being cured of his addiction.
Instead, the operators of a cramped and stinking house stole his ID and kicked him into the street.
"It makes me feel like we're not just animals," he said.
Asteria Vives, director of Home Quarters, organized the event. She and friends brought chips, hot chocolate, candy, and sweaters.
"I'm doing this because no one ever has," Vives said. "Sometimes I feel lonely, and it makes me wonder how lonely they must get out here."
As the tree was trimmed and the steaming drinks were passed around, a trio of drug dealers watched with a combination of curiosity and agitation. They were waiting, one of Vives' colleagues said, for the outsiders to leave so they could get down to business.
City leaders have been meeting a few miles away trying to figure out how to deal with this camp, which may have existed for 30 Christmases, according to some estimates.
Solutions are hard to come by. And people need comfort now.
"This time of year, what do these people have?" wondered Gilbert Alfaro, pastor of Front Street Community Church, a few blocks away. "What is the meaning of Christmas? It's hope, and we're trying to bring that here today."
Then, grabbing a microphone connected to a portable speaker, Alfaro turned and spoke to El Campamento, aiming his voice toward the ramshackle city of tarps and wooden pallets that serve as people's homes.
"Maybe now you don't feel hope," his voice boomed among the bare trees. "But we are here to let you know there is hope."