PHILADELPHIA – In 1989 when Sister Mary Scullion came to the St. Elizabeth's neighborhood, she found a burned down church along with an abandoned rectory and convent.
While no one else wanted it, Scullion, along with Joan Dawson McConnon, created a residence for homeless men recovering from addiction. What started as temporary housing for 25 men has since grown into Project HOME, a non-profit that provides affordable housing, financial education and medical care to residents of Philadelphia's second poorest zip code.
HOME stands for Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care and Education. Through 2015, they have helped 15,000 men, women and children, inspired by the mantra that “None of us are home until all of us are home.”
“Nationally, 82 percent of people who leave a homeless shelter after their stay will not return to living on the streets. Project HOME achieves 95-98 percent. We owe that to our committed community, volunteers, board members and donors,” Scullion said.
Project HOME has been supported by PNC Bank since 1995. The bank has provided money for facilities along with strategic planning and financial education classes for children.
"Project HOME helps adults and children to shift from crisis to stability and break the cycle of homelessness for entire families," said Frank Porrazza, a community development banker for PNC in Philadelphia. "Their continuum of services -- from housing to health care -- improves the quality of life for everyone in the community."
Although Scullion came to St. Elizabeth’s neighborhood with good intentions, she had to convince the neighborhood matriarch, Helen Brown. For "Miss Helen," she needed assurances of Scullion's commitment, so the nun moved into the convent to prevent drug trade nearby and still lives there today.
Originally from Charleston, S.C., Brown moved to the North Central Philadelphia neighborhood in her 20s and has lived there for 56 years.
“When I first came here, I wasn’t fond of it. The neighborhood was going downhill mainly due to drug use, and I knew something needed to be done,” said Brown, now 75.
Her involvement earned her the title of “Neighborhood Protector.” She established 16 neighborhood “block captains,” individuals who help to keep their own streets clean and alert Brown of any illegal activity. They still exist today.
Brown also works very closely with the city and police department to decrease neighborhood violence by involving authorities when appropriate and ensuring city security cameras function properly.
Scullion noticed Brown’s leadership and dedication to her community and wanted her to be on the Project HOME team.
“I took Miss Helen out for ice cream, and that sealed that deal. She just celebrated her 20th anniversary with us in 2016,” Scullion said.
It’s the hopes and dreams and vision of the people in the community that we want to tap into and empower. Having Miss Helen on the team made a lot of that possible.
“Each day we have a different project going on, and people are so grateful because whatever we say we’re going to do, we do it,” Brown said. “Sister Mary built trust in the neighborhood, and we have a great partnership – we’re like family now.”
Brown founded an after school reading group that inspired a learning center, which now holds 132 computers and offers job and interview training, adult learning programs, English and math tutoring and more.
She even started and still coaches the neighborhood drill team, known as the North Philly Footstompers, for almost 50 neighborhood kids ages 7-15. With PNC’s help, the four-time state champions have traveled to cities around the country to perform.
“One of the most treasured parts of working with PNC is the long-term commitment made over the two decades we have worked together,” Scullion said. “Working in poverty takes time, dedication and community investment to really make a strategic difference. They see the work and results that come with these efforts year over year.”
Project HOME also gives residents access to a food bank, holds neighborhood clean ups, such as painting over graffiti, and provides financial education programs and affordable housing for first time homebuyers.
“These people grow up without knowing the importance of saving or balancing a checkbook,” Scullion said.
We want to get these kids and young adults on this trajectory to change their lives so they don’t face homelessness.
Healthcare costs are in large part contributing to homelessness, and the development of the Stephen Klein Wellness Center has prevented many cases. With money from PNC and other organizations, the neighborhood’s, small, private clinic, originally led by a nurse practitioner and a medical intern, was transformed to a full-fledged wellness center.
A decade in the making, the Wellness Center opened its doors in 2015. Led by Monica McCurdy, the center provides homeless men, women and children healthcare services, including a YMCA, pharmacy, physical therapy, showers and even a food pantry with items free for the taking.
The organizations original, private clinic served 353 unique patients and now sees almost 3,000, growing by 100 new patients per month. By 2019 they estimate 17,000 visits per year, up from 1,200 at the original clinic.
“Today, more than ever, we continue to believe in the great work that Sr. Mary, Joan and the dedicated staff do in the City of Philadelphia. Project HOME’s recipe to ‘end the cycle of homelessness’ is one that has gained local, as well as national, recognition,” Porrazza said.
Most recently Project HOME broke ground to add 88 units of affordable housing to North Philadelphia opening in 2017. In addition, LGBTQ-specific units are being planned.
They are in pre-development on homeless youth and young adults, with an emphasis on gay, lesbian and transgender youths. According to nationalhomeless.org, 40 percent of the homeless youth at agencies are classified as LGBTQ.
“The people on the street were the people that inspired me to get involved in this work,” Scullion said. "You can’t help but want to partner with them and open the doors so they can come home.”
Since I’ve been here for 27 years, I get to see what happens long-term. I met two young girls in 7th grade and saw them graduate college and pursue careers.
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