Homeless_on_bench
Tomas Castelazo

Homeless Memorial Day: A vigil for the 2,200-plus homeless young people in Philadelphia

Khaliyh Jackson will recite a three-minute poem Thursday about the nights she used to spend on benches in Juniata Park. She’s 18 years old. Two years ago she was homeless, after leaving a contentious home and ending up on the streets for two months. She’s also one of the lucky ones. Jackson is back in high school and getting good grades, while volunteering to help others dealing with homelessness.    

“I want people to know what it’s like to be homeless,” she said, “and how hard it is.”

This Thursday, several organizations, including Project HOME and Mission First Housing Group, will be hosting a vigil in Center City for Homeless Memorial Day. The event honors homeless people who have died in the last year and calls for an end to homelessness. The focus this year is on youth homelessness.

Last year, a total of about 15,000 people in Philadelphia experienced homelessness at some point, according to the Office of Supportive Housing. It’s trickier to figure out how many of those were teenagers, like Jackson, or young adults. One of the ways homelessness is gauged is through the “point in time” count, when in January of every year volunteers go through Philadelphia and count the number of homeless on the street or in shelters. Last year, that count revealed 5,738 homeless persons, 647 of whom were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the Office of Housing and Urban Development. And 1,600-plus were children under age 18.

Those numbers should be considered estimates, cautions Joe Willard, vice president of policy for the People’s Emergency Center, and the real amount is most likely larger. Young homeless people especially find ways to get off the street at night.

“They are resilient and resourceful,” Willard said, “yet the adults in this game keep forgetting that.”

Why the focus on youth homelessness? Because of the vulnerability. Teenagers like Jackson and those in their 20s who experience homelessness are often transitioning out of foster care. Without the proper guidance, they risk long-term homelessness.    

Philadelphia has been hosting vigils for Homeless Memorial Day since the ’90s. This year, about 150 names will be read of homeless people who died in the last year. The event happens at 5 p.m. in Thomas Paine Plaza (15th and JFK). For more information, check out the event’s Facebook page.

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