As Pope Francis' visit draws nearer, Sister Mary Scullion wants to make sure the whole city is ready for his arrival - including the homeless men and women who normally sleep on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
"We hope there will be alternative shelter, as well as places where people will be able to get meals," Scullion said during what she called a "pope-up" on the northeast corner of Rittenhouse Square. The event, one of three held Wednesday in Center City, was designed to encourage people to combat poverty and homelessness through her Mercy and Justice Initiative.
With a life-size cardboard cutout of Francis on hand, Scullion and volunteers handed out pamphlets about the initiative, organized by the World Meeting of Families' Hunger and Homelessness Committee. Clad in bright-yellow T-shirts, they stopped passersby to discuss how Philadelphians can lessen poverty's presence in the city, and to add names to contact lists and encourage people to donate to the effort.
The event was also designed to inform people about Mercy and Justice, which has two parts: raising money for the Francis Fund, which supports 61 organizations that deal with hunger, poverty, or homelessness in Philadelphia, Camden, and elsewhere, and Act for Justice, a campaign to push Congress for legislation that addresses hunger and homelessness. Philadelphia's poverty rate is about 27 percent, making it the poorest among America's 10 largest cities. Camden's poverty rate is about 40 percent.
"In Philadelphia, we're so excited to have Pope Francis come here, but that has to inspire us to action, promote systemic change, and encourage people to get involved and do something concrete in his honor," Scullion said.
Rich Gessner said that before finding Project HOME, he lived on the streets of Kensington for eight years. Now he lives in Project HOME housing and has a job in the World Meeting of Families' call center.
He is looking forward to the papal visit, he said, and hopes the excitement surrounding Francis' presence will draw attention to local issues of poverty, something the pope has often spoken out against.
"We're so quick to say we're the best country in the world," Gessner said. "But people are going to bed hungry, and there's no reason for that. Especially children."
Also on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities published an open letter to Francis asking him to pressure city officials to fund the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund, and promote housing equality in gentrifying neighborhoods where some residents are being displaced.