This was not the plan. Sister Mary and Joan Dawson McConnon hoped to put themselves out of business. Homelessness, too. They think big like that. Instead, Project HOME, launched in a rec center locker room, is celebrating 25 years and is primed to open its 18th facility in the spring.
"So, there's good news and bad," said Sister Mary Scullion. Project HOME has a $22 million annual operating budget, provides housing for 760 residents, and employs 287 individuals, almost 30 percent of them former clients. "There are still way too many people on the streets or on the verge of homelessness. But there are so many rays of hope in Philadelphia. There's huge success, and momentum."
Miracles, too. David Brown said he lived on our streets for 25 years. The youngest of 12 children, Brown told me he never went to school, never held a job. No education, or a lousy one, prepares you for little work.
All those years, Brown slept at the old Youth Study Center on the Parkway under 22 blankets, stored during the day in a discarded appliance box. He belonged to a confederacy of a dozen homeless men and women who dubbed themselves the Hard Core, because they believed they were tougher than the rest.
Though not the streets or cold.
Today, Brown said, all but two are dead.
Sister Mary and others begged Brown to come in from the streets. In November 2011, he finally did. "They make you want to change, to do better," said Brown, 56.
Early in their mission, Sister Mary and McConnon understood what was necessary for an individual's full recovery. "We really believe that shelter alone cannot be the sole solution," Sister Mary said. "That people need housing, opportunity for employment, medical care, and education," the tenets and acronym that produce HOME.
"Everything we do is rooted in those four things," McConnon said. "We're very nimble and opportunistic. We know how to solve this. What we can't control are the numbers, the income inequality that keeps growing in this country. It's hard for people to remember that there was a time when people were not living on the streets. People who are poor seem even poorer than in the past." This year, the group will serve 2,000 clients.
Brown studies at Project HOME'S Honickman Learning Center. Once illiterate, he reads at the third-grade level and performs ninth-grade math. The organization gave him a studio apartment at 21st and Venango, health care, and a job at the HOME Spun thrift store, earning $8 an hour, a third of his salary applied toward rent.
"I'm good at selling, and I'm wearing Coach shoes," said Brown, a natty dresser. "This is a beautiful life, my safe haven. I have a key to turn in my door."
Odell Brown was a crack addict for 10 years living on and off the streets. He stayed 14 months with Project HOME. He worked with outreach counselors. He got clean. "Mainly, they helped me work on my self-esteem and my confidence, which was very low," said Brown, 50. He moved to his own place in Germantown, studied at Community College and today performs the same work as part of a psychiatric rehabilitation services team that helped him leave the streets.
Sister Mary told me, "Homelessness, like education, is not going to be solved by bake sales. There is a serious and important role for government, the private sector, and individuals." Contributions to Project HOME are grand, always needed, but Sister Mary and McConnon believe the true place to start is where they did as volunteers. McConnon told me, "come and be a part of this community, to see the dignity in every human being. There aren't any people who have come here to help who haven't found themselves profoundly changed."