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Until All of Us

ARE Home P ro j ect H . O . M . E . wor k s to b re a k the cycle of homelessness in P hil a delphi a b y D rew H ood

He outlines a few manifestations of this sin, from his perspective as someone whose job it is to partner with— not service or manage—the poorest of the poor in Philadelphia. I immediately begin wondering about my own recent acts of dehumanization. When was the last time I changed sidewalks to avoid stepping over a sleeping form on a sidewalk grate? When did I last avert my gaze from a beggar, or pretend to take a call on my cell phone to avoid eye contact or involvement with a homeless person? We’re all guilty, O’Brien assures me, at one time or another. But instead of excusing it (hey, sin happens), Project H.O.M.E. seizes it as a challenge—and an opportunity—to change things. In late 1988, the homeless situation in Philadelphia was dire. Not only were a large number of people chronically homeless, but the number was growing. With winter coming, and the available shelters proving inadequate, something had to be done. In response, two Christian organizations, Bethesda Project and Women of Hope, joined together to seek funding from FEMA to create a seasonal emergency shelter. But Sister Mary Scullion, who had co-founded Women of Hope, wanted to provide more than just shelter. She wanted to offer a solution to homelessness, and her approach to the problem was straightforward—asking people without homes what they most needed and wanted, both immediately and in the long run. What actions would be most effective in

“Dehumanization is a sin,” Will O’Brien tells me as we sit in the back corner of a closing café, the steam long gone from our cups. O’Brien is the special projects coordinator for Project H.O.M.E., an organization that confronts poverty and homelessness in Philadelphia by first confronting the sin of dehumanization.

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addicts and homeless folks who, while sometimes fickle and not always dependable, offered her a certain amount of protection and guidance and helped her self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. It was a difficult and dangerous life. King found herself struggling against not only the brutal extremes of weather but also other people in competition for resources and the throngs of city folk who—in various ways, both active and passive—treated her as less than human. King has seen or known of homeless people being chased for sport, laughed at, stolen from, spit on, and even urinated on by passers-by. That’s the active kind of dehumanization. The passive kind ignores completely, refusing eye contact and even the simplest passing acknowledgement. King was homeless for three years, and she was beginning to lose hope that she could ever have a “normal” life again. But one day a policeman offered King a cigarette, and then he did something strangers rarely did: He talked to her with respect, treating her as a valuable human being.The next day he brought her a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and she told him a bit of her story. Each morning after that, the police officer would bring her a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and every so often, he would encourage her to get help. Afraid of getting pulled into the legal system, King would refuse. She trusted no one and had no use for empty promises. All she had left was her life on the street, and as dangerous and difficult as it was, she was unwilling to give it up. Plus, she didn’t believe that she could make it any other way. The policeman did not push her, but neither did he give up on her. And eventually his persistence paid off. “One day, he asked me if I wanted to get help,” recalls King, “and I thought, ‘What have I got to lose? I’ve got nothing left.’ So I said, ‘Alright. Let’s go.’” He connected her with Project H.O.M.E., where she received food, clothing, and shelter. And when she was ready, they offered her the help she needed to break her drug and alcohol habits. But what changed everything for King was that they did all of this for her as if she fully deserved it. “When I first got here, I thought they were on drugs! People in the lobby and in the hall would smile at me and say hi to me for no reason.” But at Project H.O.M.E., they did more than smile and say hi. Through a series of medical screenings, they helped her properly diagnose and treat her schizophrenia. Then she began the process of breaking her drug habit. Eventually, King began using her business experience to tutor other residents. She was offered a part-time position answering phones at the Project H.O.M.E. front desk, and now, eight years later, she is not only a board member, but she also works full time for the outreach team, going out into the streets to meet and talk with people and, with kind persistence, offer

helping them turn their lives around? The responses tended to fall into four main categories, which ended up providing the acronym for Project H.O.M.E.: housing, opportunities, medical care, and education. And from the very beginning, Project H.O.M.E.’s mission has been to treat people who are homeless exactly as they would treat people who are housed—listen to them, talk with them, and, when necessary, stand up for them against injustice. The atmosphere of humanity, dignity, commonality, and equality created by that founding team allowed the people to let their guards down, receive care, and participate in turning their lives around. Most of us who have never experienced homelessness wonder, “Why don’t they just go to a shelter?” Why, indeed? In many cases, shelters provide such poor and dangerous conditions that people are unwilling to use them. People who are homeless are often hesitant for several reasons: Some worry they will be arrested for drugs or forced to get help before they’re ready; others are afraid that what few possessions they do have will be stolen; still others can’t stand the humiliating atmosphere, where even shelter employees treat them as if they are less than human. Sister Mary recognized this hesitancy and decided to create a safe, loving, restorative place that also reflected her sense of urgency to end homelessness in Philadelphia.

Serving the people Jesus served The quiddities of Project H.O.M.E. are poignantly embodied in the story of Hyacinth King, a prominent board member of Project H.O.M.E. since 2004. After a private school education and graduation from Temple University’s school of business in Philadelphia, King took over the management of her parents’ corner grocery store. Under her direction, the store became increasingly successful and eventually expanded. But the wisdom and experience King brings to Project H.O.M.E. has little to do with her business experience and much to do with the three years she spent living on the streets of Philadelphia. Not long after the successful expansion of the grocery store, King drove into Center City Philadelphia, parked, and lived in her car until the city eventually towed it away. Then she went to the back entrance of an appliance store, found a large box, carried it to an open sidewalk, and settled in for the winter. Unbeknownst to her, King was experiencing a schizophrenic break. Her parents were desperate to help her, but whenever they located her on the streets, she refused their help and disappeared again. Her new family on the streets were fellow

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Project H.O.M.E. assesses the needs of each unique individual and then walks them along a path that will, over time, help each person become healthy and self-supporting. The point of entry for many people who are chronically homeless is a safe haven residence. At this level, residents receive meals, shelter, healthcare services, and case management, the goal being to begin the process of stabilization. If mental illness or addiction is an issue, treatment begins here. Project H.O.M.E. does not deny housing to addicts as long as they are participating in the long, slow process of recovery. Drug users don’t have to be “clean” before they “deserve” housing. They just have to be trying to get clean. “We can’t help them if we kick them out,” O’Brien says. Project H.O.M.E. strikes a realistic balance, neither putting undue stress on people who are addicted to drugs (which might drive them back into the streets) nor offering free housing to people who have no intention of giving up drugs. St. Columba’s is one of these safe havens, with 25 beds set aside for those people who are just coming off the streets and are particularly vulnerable (e.g. the sick or elderly). It also has 15 single-occupancy rooms for those who have demonstrated a certain level of independence and are preparing to move to the next level. Another point of entry is the transitional housing stage, designed especially for those recovering from mental illness. Permanent housing is the next step, with supportive services offered for as long as needed to help them sustain an independent and productive life. These services include mental health and recovery services, other healthcare, education and employment opportunities, and advocacy. Advocacy is a particularly important part of the work of Project H.O.M.E. From the beginning, those involved with this organization have made their voices heard through political action, voter and citizen education, and meaningful dialogue with local businesses. Project H.O.M.E. fights dehumanization not only by treating the poor as human beings, but also by working tirelessly to subvert the culture that dehumanized them in the first place. They have led dozens of rallies in the past 20 years, helped change city laws, and have been a major influence in the way Philadelphia responds to homelessness. Most urban neighborhoods view transitional housing facilities and public services dealing with poverty and mental health issues as a threat to their security and property values. But for those who use that argument to protest such services from expanding into new neighborhoods, Sister Mary Scullion has some persuasive evidence that — at least when the Project H.O.M.E. model is implemented—shows the contrary can be true. Scullion had long suspected that real estate values actu-

them the services of Project H.O.M.E. King says that while she was homeless, she often thought that God had forgotten about her. But now she believes that he was simply preparing her to serve others. “Because, let’s face it,” she says, “the world is not ‘normal.’ And now I am more prepared to deal with the real world, the world that marginalized people live in every day.” King notes that these are the people whom Jesus served, and now they are the people she serves, too. Before her experience, King had no patience for addicts or people with mental illness. “But now,” she says, “I’d do anything to serve them. I’d give them the shirt off my back.”

The road to wholeness That sacrificial attitude is one of the core characteristics of Project H.O.M.E., setting it apart from other similar organizations.While the organization itself is not faith-based, the people involved in the work, many of whom are deeply influenced by their Christian faith, have from the very beginning rejected the widespread belief that people who are economically poor, addicted, and/or homeless have gotten themselves into their situations, and are solely responsible for getting themselves out. “We need a new set of cultural values,” says Will O’Brien. “We have to move away from the culture of rugged individualism, a culture that divides winners from losers. When someone steps over a homeless person, it is symbolic of our larger value system. We need to move from that system towards what Jesus called the kingdom of God.” At Project H.O.M.E., the kingdom of God is in full operation. I asked several people who have received care from Project H.O.M.E. what sets it apart from other similar organizations, and they all shared the same sentiment: “They treat us like human beings here.” But Project H.O.M.E. is different. Their outreach team is patrolling the streets of Philadelphia 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long — even holidays, even in deepest snow. In fact, especially on holidays and especially in the snow. The outreach team is Project H.O.M.E.’s first contact with the homeless, and, much like the police officer in King’s story, they talk to and encourage and empower and wait with people. Then they walk with them through the entire process. They build trust by offering respect first, food and shelter second. Another approach that sets the Project H.O.M.E. model apart is their provision of a “continuum of care.” Designed to address the complex variety of needs faced by the poor and the homeless, the continuum of care consists of direct street outreach, a wide range of housing solutions (from transitional to permanent), and a comprehensive set of services (from computer skills and job training to education and healthcare).

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violently — we rob them of their right to experience, in this life, the love and redemption of Christ through us. Whether we look up at others in awe or down at others in disgust, we are committing the sin of dehumanization. At Project H.O.M.E. they make no essential distinction between governor and street sleeper, between those addicted to drugs and those addicted to consumerism.“Everyone struggles with addiction,” says O’Brien. “We should see ourselves as a society in recovery.” Project H.O.M.E.’s slogan is “None of us is home until all of us are home.” According to Sister Mary Scullion and Will O’Brien and the hundreds of others who work with Project H.O.M.E., the humiliation and degradation of homelessness humiliates and degrades all of us. The homeless among us are signs that something is wrong with the society in which we participate. “If you see homelessness, don’t ignore it,” says O’Brien. “Assume it’s your problem. Don’t be overcome with guilt, but ask yourself how you can become part of the solution. Contribute financially, volunteer, work to understand political issues, pray.” He says that it’s not always best to give money, but we should act on our consciences. It’s best to affirm a homeless person by making eye contact and engaging him or her in conversation, offering to buy some food, and then trying to get some help—especially if the person appears to be in distress. (Project H.O.M.E. has a hotline for people to call if they encounter a homeless person who might need help.) As Will O’Brien and I finish our coffee and our conversation, he explains that the café we’re in is run by people who were once homeless. All the artwork on the walls was created by residents who were once homeless. The person who took my call at O’Brien’s office and received me in the lobby was once homeless. Project H.O.M.E. is helping thousands of people recover their dignity, humanity, and self-sufficiency. They are confronting poverty and homelessness by first confronting the sin of dehumanization. And through the entire continuum of care, the focus is on health and recovery and re-humanization. God made the ultimate statement against dehumanization when he chose to become human himself — to validate our humanity and to redeem it. Likewise we can enter into the world of the homeless through an active compassion and empathy for those who face that struggle. When we enter into the lives of others, we discover our common humanity and are able to embrace each other in all our broken glory. It is then, and only then, that we can begin to understand that none of us is home until all of us are home. n

At one time homeless and without the medication she needs for a mental illness, Hyacinth King is now a prominent board member of Project H.O.M.E. and an invaluable member of their outreach team. Photo by Drew Hood.

ally improved in the neighborhoods where Project H.O.M.E. erected its facilities for the homeless. Then a study released in January confirmed her suspicions. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Daniel Rubin, “Where homes in Philadelphia have risen in value an average of 5 percent since 1993, they have risen 6.8 percent within a quarter mile of Project H.O.M.E. sites” (“Project H.O.M.E. confounds property-value naysayers,” Jan. 7, 2008). Each of the sites met with vociferous opposition, yet because Project H.O.M.E. tends to select “economically distressed neighborhoods and improves the buildings, which often had sat vacant” before Project H.O.M.E.’s arrival, the neighborhoods have been quantifiably improved by its facilities.

What can we do? A 2007 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated that approximately 3.5 million people (one-third of them children) will experience homelessness in a given year. As the economy continues to struggle, and as poverty rates increase, so will the number of people who experience homelessness. What can churches do? Will O’Brien says that churches can help in three ways: by providing resources, by becoming strong advocates for justice, and by evangelizing the culture. Resources can be anything from money to time to building space. Many programs and organizations are in need of volunteers, donations, or the use of facilities from local churches. How about individuals — what difference can each of us make? A good place to start, says O’Brien, is by remembering that people who are homeless are — just like ourselves and just like those we most admire—equal in the eyes of God. Dehumanization works in two directions: It considers some people less than human and others more than human.When we revere the most successful among us, we rob them of their right to sin and fail (and when they do, as when a celebrity crashes, how we as a culture love to hate them!). When we reject the least successful among us — whether passively or

Drew Hood is a photographer (throwinglight.com) and writer based in Philadelphia, Pa. Learn more about this ministry at ProjectHome.org.

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Until All of Us Are Home  

While all too many of us dehumanize the homeless, Philadelphia’s Project H.O.M.E. offers them respect and compassion even before food and sh...

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