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Homeless who died on the streets, or in shelters, remembered

His name remains unknown.

Nicole Paul of West Phila. takes part in the memorial at City Hall.  ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )
Nicole Paul of West Phila. takes part in the memorial at City Hall. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )Read more

His name remains unknown.

But six months after police killed a 60-year-old homeless man, mourners today laid a wreath at the site where he was killed in the lower concourse of the Municipal Services Building.

It was part of a candlelight memorial for the 87 homeless people - 17 women and 70 men - who died in the last year on the streets or in shelters.

Moments before the wreath-laying, about 200 people gathered in the City Hall courtyard to read the name of each victim.

Mayor Nutter intoned to the crowd, "There is no good god-given reason for anyone to suffer without a roof over his head."

Tony Madwid, who works for the nonprofit Bethesda Project that provides housing for the homeless, held up a sign with the name of a woman he knew, Bonnie Nardini.

Madwid said the Bethesda Project had set her up in an apartment and provided her with support services for mental illness. But she disappeared and was discovered dead in South Philadelphia's Roosevelt Park on a frigid night earlier in the year.

"Many of us feel a personal loss," Madwid said.

Karen Pushaw, who works at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Kensington, knew five of the victims. She called them "the invisible homeless" who lived in abandoned houses or doubled up with friends and relatives. All were in their 40s and 50s.

"They don't get proper medical care mainly because their main concern is finding a warm place at night," Pushaw said.

Philadelphia has about 395 people throughout the city who are living on the streets, plus another 3,000 men, women and children who live in shelters.

Today's memorial was one of 127 held across the country - from Orlando, Fla., to Bethel, Alaska - as part of Homeless Memorial Day.

John Lozier, executive director of the Nashville-based National Health Care for the Homeless Council, a national co-organizer of the events, said holding ceremonies on the longest night of the year is intentional.

"It's physically a very difficult time of year" for homeless people, Lozier said. He said there are no firm national statistics on the number of people who die every year on the streets or in shelters, but "it's clearly in the hundreds and hundreds every year."

Lozier said the average age of death for people living on the streets or shelters is about 50, compared with about 80 for the general population.

In Philadelphia, the severity of life on the streets was driven home during the weekend blizzard. Anticipating cold weather, the city called a "Code Blue" on Dec. 16, which gave outreach teams and police the authority to force people inside. It remains in effect, said Dainette Mintz, director of the city's Office of Supportive Housing.

Mintz said people living on the streets were placed in emergency "cafes" and recreation centers. She said she was not aware of any homeless deaths over the weekend.

The last person to die in the city was a homeless veteran, identified by the Medical Examiner's Office as Henry James Abbott Jr.

Abbott stepped in front of a westbound train as it was pulling into 30th Street Station on Sunday, Dec. 13.

Aqueel Muhammad, a former Marine who was once homeless, said he came to the memorial to remember a woman named Peaches who lived in Love Park.

Muhammad, who is a recovering addict now receiving counseling and housing from the nonprofit Impact Services, said he tried to convince his friend to get help and find shelter.

But she ignored him, moved to Baltimore and died.

"I'm here to remember her," said Muhammad, holding a thin candle. "Once you've been homeless, you understand the life."