Honoring the life of Marcellus Phillips

Marcellus Phillps. Photo courtesy of Donte Turner.

Street Sense Media artist, vendor, and former vendor program associate Marcellus Phillips died in late February. He was 43.

Phillips’ generosity, determination and passion left impressions on all who interacted with him. His mother, Karen Swailes, remembers him as a strong-willed person who worked hard.

“He was the type of person, he would say what he knew he wouldn’t be able to do and figure out a way to do it,” Swailes said. “He was gonna figure out a way to work it that way.”

Phillips was born in D.C. on Aug. 6, 1979, but his mother said the family moved around often. Even though moving frequently was frustrating for Phillips, Swailes said his determination made it work. After one move, Swailes said Phillips insisted on attending a school in the county the family had previously lived in, rather than going to a new school.

“I told him to figure out how he couldn’t go, and he did, and he went to the school he wanted to,” Swailes said.

Phillips often directed that energy towards improving things at Street Sense Media as a vendor program associate. Thomas Ratliff, Street Sense Media’s director of vendor employment, originally met Phillips in 2020 when Ratliff was working as a volunteer and leading the writer’s group program. Phillips immediately impressed him when he asked Ratliff if they could meet to discuss a presentation he had made about ideas to improve the workshop.

“He was always thinking about how to build new programs that were empowering to people,” Ratliff said. “He was concerned for people experiencing homelessness, people who are unhoused, and thinking about new programs and new ways to energize programs that already exist that support those people.”

Ratliff remembers Phillips as incredibly generous. He said that often, when someone would come into the office in need of money, Phillips would give them cash, even if he didn’t have much to share.

“That was kind of his ethos — if he has something, then he should share it,” Ratliff said.

Phillips’ generosity wasn’t limited to money. Ratliff said Phillips loved to share the things he was passionate about with others who were interested.

“He was always looking to learn more about the world, to figure out how to be his own business person, how to be a musician and then how to show others those things if they were interested in it,” Ratliff said.

Phillips loved music. Swailes remembers Phillips always playing the same song while he was getting ready for school in the morning, while Ratliff recalls that Phillips would often spend his downtime at work talking about his rap music.

“He had a wide range of influences and tastes and things that he listened to, but that’s what he was really working on,” Ratliff said. “He specifically was a rapper and had lyrical skills.”

In personal essays and poems published in Street Sense’s newspaper, Phillips wrote about his personal journey and his motivation to help others. Phillips was diagnosed with epilepsy after he had his first seizure the night of his high school graduation. Although this meant that Phillips sometimes struggled, he emphasized his gratitude for his life in his writings.

“Things aren’t perfect, but I have no reason to complain,” Phillips wrote in “I’m building opportunities for others” in 2019. “Having a seizure disorder limits my job options, so I’ve had to create my own opportunities. My goal is to help more Street Sense Media vendors do the same.”

Ratliff remembers how, whenever he asked Phillips how he was doing, Phillips would reply that he was “blessed to see another day.”

“Marcellus was someone who would give the shirt off his back to someone else who needed it, like really, literally,” Ratliff said.

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