A male choir from an Archdiocesan ministry for the homeless shared their message of comfort and hope, as Philadelphia and other U.S. cities remembered those who died homeless during the year elapsed.
The Good Shepherd Singers of St. John’s Hospice (SJH) were the featured musical artists at the December 21 Homelessness Memorial Day ceremony at Thomas Paine Plaza near City Hall.
Launched in 1990 by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care Council for the Homeless, the annual celebration – which takes place on the longest night of the year – commemorates those who perished in the middle of “inhuman and tragic situations, on the streets or in abandoned homes,” said event host Evan Figueroa Vargas, a mental health and recovery advocate.
As part of the Archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS), the Downtown-based SJH works to combat homelessness by providing over 300 meals each weekday to its residential and daytime guests. , as well as case management, on-site nursing, daily showers and a mail room. In addition, each year the establishment accommodates some 250 men in search of accommodation.
Wednesday’s candlelight vigil featured two songs from the Good Shepherd Singers – âLean On Meâ by Bill Withers and the folk anthem âThis Little Light of Mineâ – as well as personal testimonials, poetry and a reading of the names of more than 400 people have died homeless in Philadelphia in the past year.
For Jerry, a member of the Good Shepherd Singers, this list brought back memories.
âIn 2006 my wife was on the list,â he said. âIt meant a lot to hear his name. I had started staying on the streets when (his death) happened.
Through SJH’s Good Shepherd program, Jerry and his fellow singers – most of whom are medically fragile – are working to make the transition from homelessness to independent living, while meeting their specific health care needs. In fact, Jerry said, he missed last year’s rally due to a hospital stay.
SJH’s resources – which include weekday meals for hundreds of clients, as well as case management, on-site nursing, daily showers, and a mail room – provide a way to get off the streets, said SJH program director Barry Martin, who runs the Good Shepherd. Singers.
The choir members âshow that they were able to use the programâ¦ and survive,â Martin said. âSome people use the support systems that are available to them; they go to drug and alcohol recovery.
A number of Good Shepherd singers have “years of sobriety right now,” he added. âIt’s a statement for themselves and for others, ‘If I can do it, you can do it. “
The rehearsals for their performances throughout the year build confidence, literacy and a sense of camaraderie, Martin said.
âA lot of these guys come into the game and they just really can’t read that well,â he said. âSo they learn to read a bit by going through those words. It’s usually their first experience singing in a choir, and while we’re togetherâ¦ we have so much fun sitting around the kitchen table, singing, joking and teasing.
The need for places like SJH has increased, said Amy Stoner, director of community, housing and homelessness services for CSS, which operates the hospice.
âWe are seeing an increase in the number of homeless people who are reluctant to accept an accommodation bed,â Stoner said.
According to the city’s Office of Homeless Services, approximately 5,700 people are considered homeless in Philadelphia, a number that includes some 950 homeless.
The ongoing COVID pandemic, coupled with an increase in overdoses of opioids such as fentanyl, has exacerbated the problem, Stoner said.
Archdiocesan ministries such as SJH and her sisters, Mercy Hospice and Women of Hope, are in urgent need of practical help to meet the growing demand for services, administrators said.
Among the essentials they look for are “cleaning supplies to maintain frequent sanitization” and “Lyft and Uber cards to send residents to various appointments,” said Renee Hudson-Small, deputy director of hospital services. CSS Housing and Homelessness and current Director of Mercy. Hospice.
Personal items such as underwear are also scarce, and donations of “any type of gift card” are welcome “as there is always an emergency or unusual situation to be addressed,” she said. .
Tackling homelessness is a large-scale team effort, Stoner said.
“We need the government and people of good faith to defend and invest in housing for homeless people,” she said, echoing the theme of this year’s memorial, “remember together, change together “.
And change is possible, said Martin.
âHomelessness is one of those everyday things; you wake up one day and say you’re done, you’re going to get high and die – or you can wake up and say, “I’m going to keep trying,” he said. “And these guys keep trying.”