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Editorial: Combating Homelessness

Saturday, April 09, 2005

One heck of a sister act

Some Philadelphians may find this hard to believe, but their city is known nationally for things other than crooked pols, nasty sports fans and crafty lawyers.

On some issues, the problem solvers who work doggedly around this city to make it a better place to live are recognized as national models. People from other cities come here to learn from them.

One of those issues is combating homelessness. Philadelphia's fine reputation on that front was confirmed last week as the National Alliance to End Homelessness honored a local program in an event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The program is Project H.O.M.E, founded by Sister Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson McConnon. Project H.O.M.E. runs shelters and transition housing, renovates housing while preparing people to buy and maintain those units, runs after-school and literacy programs, and generally addresses the range of urban social ills with intelligence and soul.

Project H.O.M.E. is just one, albeit the best known, of a battalion of smart organizations doing good work in Philly to combat the crises and root causes of homelessness. The others include the People's Emergency Center, Horizon House, Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services, Episcopal Community Services, Bethesda Project, and Ready, Willing & Able. Apologies to other worthy names left off that list.

John Street, first as a city councilman and now as mayor, deserves credit for taking a holistic but tough-minded approach to addressing homelessness.

Philadelphia now shines as a city that has found sound ways to gently move homeless people off the streets and into shelter, and enable them to get treatment for addictions, care for illnesses and homes for families.

Newspapers from Denver, San Francisco and New York, among others, have sent writers here to study how Philadelphia does what it does so well.

Sister Mary Scullion earned her share of the Kennedy Center recognition the hard way.

She did it in the streets on nights of brutal cold, offering coffee, a meal, a roof to the addicted, afflicted, unemployed and homeless. She did it by pleading, begging, badgering and even suing those in power to help assemble the right array of services to heal and prevent homelessness.

This tireless nun has never been shy about speaking truth to power. Standing last week in the city where Congress is contemplating sharp cutbacks in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and services for the disabled, she said:

"We are all too aware of the inhospitable political and economic environment we are in, which widens the gulf between the wealthy and the needy. Never has the gulf been so deep in my lifetime."

But Sister Mary has never just waited for politicians to act. She has always sought partnerships with any individuals, companies or nonprofits willing to help with the work in whatever way they could.

"We need to find new ways to tap more deeply into people's essential fairness and generosity and compassion," she said the other day, back from the capital city.

She's right. And she - and all the other amazing people who make up this city's battalions of caring - needs the rest of us to pitch in.

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