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Love Park vigil held for homeless

Several hundred people gathered late Tuesday afternoon at Love Park to observe Homeless Memorial Day and bring attention to 101 people in Philadelphia who struggled with homelessness but died this year.

As participants, including those who have lived on the streets, signs with each person's name and candles, the names were read aloud in the frigid evening air.

Among the names was Nicole Piacentini, one of the victims of the Kensington Strangler.

Others could only be identified by first names or nicknames, including John, Rick, Skip, Vanessa, and "Shabazz."

Not all the people named were homeless at the time they died, but they had experienced homelessness at some point, organizers said.

Oliver Burrus, 48, held a sign for a woman he never met, Deborah "Debbie" Harmon.

Burrus, who said he was homeless and drug-addicted for most of 20 years, now lives at the Susquehana Park recovery house in the city's Strawberry Mansion section.

He said he keeps busy with several daily meetings to help him with his drug recovery and his next step is to get his GED.

Burris, who came to Philadelphia from New York about 15 years ago, said he is trying to keep his life simple, "just making the meetings, go to school, get my life back in order, and leave the rest to God."

Also on Tuesday, the city's Homeless Death Review Team, convened by the Medical Examiner's Office, released a report analyzing 43 people who died while homeless in 2009.

The report, described as the first of its kind in Philadelphia, found that the most common contributing factor in the deaths reviewed was alcoholism or drug intoxication.

Sister Mary Scullion, founder of Project H.O.M.E., led the ceremony and addressed the tough economic realities being faced on many levels.

"Unemployment and poverty are increasing, foreclosures continue at a record rate, and shelters and food pantries cannot meet the increased demand," Scullion said.

"We use this occasion to call on all Philadelphians and all America to wake up and recommit ourselves to ending homelessness," she said. "While we seek economic solutions for our country, we cannot forget our most vulnerable citizens."

Scullion warned supporters that politicians facing shortfalls in government budgets will look to slash social programs.

"We also recognize we're in a new political climate in Pennsylvania," she said. "We have to get involved more and more in our civic engagement."

According to Project H.O.M.E. homelessness in Phialdelphia had been declined in the late-1990s, but has been on the rise since 2000.

The most recent an overnight count of people sleeping on the streets found 352 in Center City. That same night in November, about 2,600 people were living in emergency shelter, including approximately 1,000 children.

City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell also appeared to present Scullion with a proclamation recognizing Homeless Memorial Day, which is commemorated annually on the first day of Winter.