On Tuesday morning, at the tail end of a groundbreaking ceremony for a new housing complex for people coming out of addiction and homelessness, Sister Mary Scullion leaned into the microphone.
“One other little note I just want to say is that this building’s ready to go. We’re ready to get under construction," said the president and executive director of Project HOME, the city’s preeminent housing, poverty, and homelessness services organization.
“And we need one piece of paper signed" by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. "And because of the government shutdown, we’re waiting.”
It was a last-minute delay for a project located in the physical heart of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis that has already been five years in the planning. Project HOME has been working to build apartments in a former elementary school at 1920 E. Orleans St. in Kensington, just blocks from the neighborhood’s last major homeless encampment.
Now, with the building purchased, private funding lined up, and approval from local housing authorities, all that remained was for HUD to authorize subsidies for the 42-unit complex. City officials learned those papers hadn’t yet been signed a few days ago, said Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s office of homeless services.
“We knew that there were the ripple effects" of the government shutdown, she said. “But the longer the government shutdown goes on, the longer the impact. It’s so frustrating. This has been a long journey as it is."
Still, a small crowd gathered in bitter cold on Orleans Street on Tuesday to celebrate the end of the planning stages of the Maguire Homes project.
Project HOME already runs several housing complexes for people in recovery, but Maguire is the first in Kensington.
“Project HOME really wanted to be a partner in what is going to be a long recovery,” said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sànchez, who represents the neighborhood. “We can improve quality of life and also help folks caught up in this devastation. It’s not an either-or, it is an and."
Neighbors on Orleans had long pushed to find a new use for the empty school — especially in recent years, as addiction drew scores of homeless people to the neighborhood.
“Our entire block has been vigilant in protecting this building," said Liz Carpenter, the block captain, whose church also does addiction outreach in the neighborhood. “We were worried that this might become one of those encampments.”
It will be key, she said, for Project HOME to provide resources for the building’s tenants, “something to take them outside their addiction.”
Scullion said that’s exactly what her organization aims to do. The building will be geared toward people who have been in recovery for some time but need support to maintain sobriety. Some tenants, she said, will still be in outpatient treatment for addiction; others will need help seeking employment or education. Tenants will likely be recruited through a lottery and the city’s homeless intake process, and from temporary shelters.
People in active addiction living in the long-running Emerald Street encampment just a few blocks away would likely not be eligible, at least not yet, for an apartment at Maguire.
That camp is set to be cleared at the end of the month. Hersh said the city, as when it cleared previous encampments, is working to place Emerald Street residents in treatment slots, low-barrier shelters that don’t require sobriety, or another Project HOME complex for “people who are a little further on” in their recovery. In the past, camp residents have also been accepted into Pathways to Housing, a housing program that doesn’t require sobriety.
Hersh said there’s a “dire shortage” of housing in the city for people in early recovery.
A traditional recovery house “is really designed to be short-term,” she said. “It’s a steppingstone. This is permanent supportive housing," she said of Maguire. "Once people are in, they can stay as long as they need to.”
Katie Dougherty, who lives in another Project HOME building, said she needed that extra support after six years in addiction, some spent living on the streets of Kensington.