Voices from the Field Blog: Reflections on Homeless Persons’ Memorial

by Lisa Sepahi
November 18, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Lisa Sephai details the significance of Homeless Persons Memorial Day that have been held annually since 1990 on the longest night of the year. These national events are aimed at raising awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and to remember individuals who have died on the streets.

Nancy* was 54 years old when she died of cancer. I first met Nancy at an overnight homeless shelter. She was bubbly and happy-go-lucky, her bright personality stood out despite her dire circumstances. Nancy spent the previous four years living on the streets after losing her job as an accountant. Shortly after I met Nancy, she was offered permanent housing through a Housing First program. 

This housing opportunity could not have come soon enough; shortly after becoming housed, Nancy learned that she had terminal cancer. Fortunately, Nancy was housed when she died, but the years on the streets had a significant impact on her health and her ability to seek the treatment that she needed to diagnose and treat her illness. Nancy's story is not unique; however, Nancy was fortunate to die in the comfort of her own home with her friends around her. Many people experiencing homelessness are not as fortunate and die on the streets.

It is for this reason that each year The National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Consumer Advisory Board, and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council encourage communities to host public events on December 21 to remember those individuals in our communities who have died homeless in the past year.  Homeless Persons Memorial Day events have been held every year around the first day of winter and the longest night of year since 1990. 

Homeless Persons Memorial Day raises awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and serves to stand as a public memorial in recognition of friends and neighbors who have died on the streets. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides toolkits that include an organizing manual, posters, and fact sheet to help groups organize events every year.

According to The National Health Care for the Homeless Council:

  • Homelessness dramatically elevates one's risk of illness, injury, and death.
  • The average age of death of a person experiencing homelessness is about fifty years, the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900.
  • People experiencing homelessness suffer the same illnesses experienced by people with homes, but at rates three to six times higher.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness die on the streets from exposure to the cold.
  • Poor access to quality health care reduces the possibility of recovery from illnesses and injuries.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness die on the streets from unprovoked violence, also known as hate crimes.

Homeless Persons Memorial Day is an opportunity to bring attention to an every day tragedy. It stands as a testament to the vital importance that housing plays to the health, well-being, and safety of all people.

For more information on events in your area or if you are interesting in hosting your own event, visit: http://www.nhchc.org/resources/consumer/homeless-persons-memorial-day/ and http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2013-national-homeless-persons-memorial-day-

*Name has been changed

Source: National Health Care for the Homeless Council (2006) "The Hard, Cold Facts About the Deaths of Homeless People" http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/HardColdFacts.pdf

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Category: General | Guest Entry

Giving Back in the City of Brotherly Love

by Marcella Maguire
November 07, 2012

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Marcella Maguire, Ph.D., of the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) and partner in the Journey of Hope project in Philadelphia, has worked in recovery outreach programs for many years. Her work with Journey of Hope demonstrates a commitment to a recovery-focused system that provides support for long-term recovery and enhanced quality of personal and family life. This is a significant change from acute serial episodes of brief stabilization, and requires cooperation across many levels of service, family, and community. In her own words, she explains how the city of Philadelphia is ending homelessness, one person at a time.

Some questions are so simple and yet so complex at exactly the same time. “How do we end homelessness in this county?” is exactly that type of question. The simple answer is that housing ends homelessness. It’s that simple. It’s exactly that simple answer that Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter decided upon when he took office in January 2008 and decided to make ending street homelessness a priority for the City of Brotherly Love.

When we began the program we had no idea how it would work. The initial thought was that 200 people a year could come off the street, receive vouchers, and leave homelessness. But we knew people need supportive services and it is challenging to determine which supportive services are necessary for someone who is still living on the street. Limited resources make service matching important; you never want to give someone more services than they need because someone else needs them, too. On the flipside, you never want to give people too little services because that may set them up for failure. People experiencing chronic homelessness often have many failures in their lives. One more is not necessary.

BL had been living in the downtown train station for over five years. She lived on and off in the shelter system for three years before that. She had some mild mental health issues that life on the street made much worse. Over the winter, she used one of the winter overnight cafes, which are Philadelphia’s version of an overnight drop-in center. The cafe system gives people a warm dry place to sleep and engage with needed services in the morning. She made a good connection with staff at the cafe and they believed she would be successful in her own place with a voucher and a little support. She engaged with a case manager and began the housing process. Her unit was inspected twice before it passed and both delays made her ask the question, would she really receive housing? Eventually, before winter ended, she was able to move in and leave the train station. She still visits friends who remain and advocates for them, but she returns home every night.

We utilized Medicaid-funded supportive services of targeted case management, drug and alcohol case management, and peer supports. Openings that were created in homeless programming were held solely for people with a documented history of street homelessness.

Over three and a half years, my team of committed professionals helped move 587 people out of homeless programming and into their own apartments. Participants were required to participate in supportive services for at least one year prior to their lease being up and had to sign a document agreeing to that fact. Perhaps most importantly, everyone received an individualized recovery plan that matched their needs and desires, rather than a one size fits all approach. As such, the project had fewer participants who disengaged from services and we believe this increased our success rate tremendously. We implemented a monthly feedback form to check in and track housing outcomes such as paying rent, adhering to the terms of their lease, etc. If participants were experiencing challenges there was a process of reevaluating supports to assist them in maintaining their housing and recovery.

As of May 2012, 534 of the 587 remain leased, for a 91 percent housing retention rate. Of those leased, 82 percent have been leased up for at least 12 months. Many have been able to re-enter the work force and a number of them are now employed by the administrative system or provider agencies. Nothing makes this work more worthwhile than being able to organize and plan services with colleagues who have moved beyond their life on the street, engaged with their recovery, and are now giving back to the City of Brotherly Love.

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