A memorial for homeless people
They lived in the shadows of the city, and they died there. In the last year, 85 men and women passed away on the streets of Philadelphia or in shelters - more than twice the number of five years ago. The increase matches the overall rise in the city's homeless street population, which reached 527 people in a count last month.
They lived in the shadows of the city, and they died there.
In the last year, 85 men and women passed away on the streets of Philadelphia or in shelters - more than twice the number of five years ago. The increase matches the overall rise in the city's homeless street population, which reached 527 people in a count last month.
At a frigid noontime rally yesterday in John F. Kennedy Plaza, also known as LOVE Park, advocates for the homeless, as well as the homeless themselves, came to remember the dead. The gathering of about 100 people was part of National Homeless Memorial Day, held in 90 cities across the country.
In LOVE Park, they hoisted victims' names on poles resembling big candlesticks. As each name was read, a cowbell was rung.
Among the departed was Amertrius Leroy Johnson.
Just 47, he died in LOVE Park before midnight on Thanksgiving. A longtime resident of the streets, Johnson suffered from mental illness and alcoholism. The medical examiner said he died of pneumonia.
"At this time of year, you can see a guy today and he's gone tomorrow," said Dwayne Grant, 56, a veteran of the streets who now is enrolled in the Ready, Willing and Able program for homeless men.
Grant attended the memorial with other members of the program, which provides jobs and housing for recovering homeless alcoholics and addicts.
On the streets, he said, "you get familiar with each other. We all congregate together. Then you'll hear, 'Did you hear about so-and-so? He passed last night.' "
The last "so-and-so" to die was "Jane Doe," an older woman whose body was found Dec. 11 in a portable toilet in Franklin D. Roosevelt Park in South Philadelphia.
Although her identity is a mystery, many victims were familiar to those at the rally.
Shirley Dominiak was a regular on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. She hated shelters, loved politics, and supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for president. On Sept. 13, she complained of feeling sick, and she died in the hospital of a massive stroke.
Jeffrey LaVoe, in his late 50s, was known by many in the shelter community as a gentle and agreeable man. Mentally challenged, he used to pass time at Philadelphia International Airport. His body was found in Cobbs Creek Park last month.
There were 527 people living on the streets in the city's latest fall census, compared with 334 people during the same period five years ago.
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, a nonprofit provider of homeless housing and services, called homelessness "a public health crisis."
"There are more people, they're out here longer, and the longer they're out here, the more susceptible they are to dying," Scullion said.
Project HOME compiled the memorial list by calling shelters, homeless outreach workers, and the Medical Examiner's Office.
A 2005 study by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, an umbrella group of more than 200 programs, found that homeless people were three to four times more likely to die prematurely than members of the general population.
The report also found that the deaths occurred throughout the year and not just in the winter months. Among the homeless, acute and chronic medical conditions often go untreated, contributing to the high death rate, the study said.
"Homelessness increases the severity of a person's medical or psychiatric problems," said Rhonda Carter, a psychiatric nurse practitioner for the Mary Howard Health Center, a city-supported clinic for homeless people.
"When you're on the streets, your priority is not your mental health. It's finding a roof to put over your head, or satisfying the basic need to get food," Carter said.
Misty Sparks said she recognized at least a dozen names on the list. She manages one of the city-funded overnight drop-in "cafes" for street people.
"A lot of people, I didn't even know they had died," said Sparks, who works for Bethesda Project, another nonprofit provider of housing for the homeless. "People appear and disappear, and you don't know why."
Yesterday's subfreezing temperatures seemed to underscore the vulnerability of people on the streets. Dainette Mintz, the city's deputy managing director in charge of homeless housing and services, said the city had called a "code blue" for last night.
Mintz said the city had set up emergency shelters in recreation centers and other city properties and would try to force people in from the cold.
"These resources are the difference between life and death," Mintz said.
The memorial list bore it out.
During a cold spell last October, two people died from hypothermia: Howard Jackson, in front of the Municipal Services Building, and Yancy Smith, on the steps of an Old City church.