It’s fitting that the two women whose efforts to curb homelessness in Philadelphia birthed an organization now recognized as a national model first connected through the unhoused people they separately served.
In the mid-1980s, Sister Mary Scullion began working with unhoused Philadelphians as part of her commitment to the Sisters of Mercy. Many of the individuals she served would ask if she knew Joan Dawson McConnon, a Drexel University graduate student who did similar work.
Scullion didn’t know McConnon But, she says, everyone “said she was a remarkable person and that we should meet.”
When the pair did connect, they later realized they had a shared vision of how to address homelessness: Providing those in need with a continuum of care that addressed an unhoused individual’s multiple needs, including housing, opportunity for employment, medical care, and education. Together, in 1989, they came up with the concept of Project HOME.
More than 30 years later, their nonprofit has grown from a single transitional residence into a multi-faceted organization providing long-term housing and temporary safe places; access to mental and physical medical care, education opportunities, job training and placement programs; and expanding into drug and alcohol recovery support. Their efforts have improved the lives of every city resident, not just those they’ve directly served.
Just one measure of their success: Among the country’s 10 largest cities, Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate. Yet it also has the lowest percentage of unhoused residents.
For all of this, The Philadelphia Citizen is honoring Sister Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson McConnon with its inaugural Citizen of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award. Both women, who are stepping away from their leadership roles in 2024, note that the organization’s work is far from done.
“You can’t sit back and think, We did that. Great. The needs of people who are unsheltered are so urgent,” Scullion says. “We took a step forward and there are still more steps to go.”
“Our success is rooted in community and love,” McConnon says. “I feel like we’re representing the entire Project HOME community, because it’s that community that’s created all that’s happened in the last 35 years. The truth is, we can solve this. We know how to solve it.”
A lot of prayer and a lot of work
Scullion and McConnon recognized the need for a holistic approach to ending homelessness while working at a small winter emergency shelter for men that operated from roughly December 1989 until Easter 1990. Each day, the shelter would open its doors at 7pm. At 7am, those who’d gathered there at night returned to the streets.
It was raining on the April day the shelter permanently closed. One person who frequently stayed there asked the women why they’d even bothered to open the facility and build a caring community if they were just going to close the doors and walk away.
“He challenged what we were doing, and that really got us to understand that we had to be able to offer something after the winter shelter,” McConnon says. “The idea of the winter shelter was to keep people from freezing to death, but it wasn’t the solution.”
They had a concept and, a few months later, they had their first funding. The Connelly sisters, whose parents had established the grant-giving Connelly Foundation in 1955, gave the still-fledgling organization $100,000.
That first substantial gift was more than a milestone: It was like a miracle, McConnon says. Another quickly followed: Project HOME wanted to open its first transitional shelter for men at an Archdiocese of Philadelphia-owned building in North Philadelphia, but an order of nuns were also looking to settle in the building.
As McConnon recalls, the Archdiocese sought neighbor and parishioner input before deciding who would get the space, and “I recall thinking that there was no way (they’d) select us over a group of nuns.”
But they did, with one local leader noting that, “The sisters will find a home, but so many of our neighbors are experiencing homelessness and we think the building should be used to help our neighbors.”
The next miracle-tinged milestone came in 1994 when, after a four-year legal
battle, Project HOME was given the go-ahead to open a low-income housing facility at 1515 Fairmount Avenue. The plan had been strongly opposed by city leaders, including then-Mayor Ed Rendell and then-City Council President John Street.
What started as a zoning issue became a federal one when Project HOME sued the City for discrimination. The nonprofit won, then had their victory upheld on appeal. The City then declined to press the matter further.
“That took a lot of prayer and a lot of work,” Scullion says. “And the people who were most fearful, the neighbors, embraced our community and supported us in building more units down the street.”
Homelessness is not a “them” problem, Scullion and McConnon say. It’s an “us” problem. “We’re part of one human family, so what affects one of us directly affects all of us indirectly,” says Scullion.
When McConnon was in her early 20s, she saw an empty wheelchair on a sidewalk. It belonged to the man who was sitting on the ground nearby.
“This was a disabled veteran and this was his home. How can we allow that?” McConnon asks. “How can we accept that? We rationalize so we can live without being burdened with something abhorrent to us. How is that acceptable to us as a society with the abundance we have?”
That commitment to change has been embraced by high-profile supporters, including rocker Jon Bon Jovi and Pope Frances. As the organization’s profile has grown, so has its impact and the size of its donor gifts. In 2013, Phillies owner John Middleton and his wife, Leigh, gave the organization $30 million that has, among other things, allowed them to increase housing offerings and build a new medical center.
The Middletons were introduced to Project Home 12 years ago when Sister Mary took them on a tour. “We were immediately impressed by its commitment to not just provide temporary fixes, but to find and implement solutions to eradicate homelessness in Philadelphia permanently,” John Middleton said in a written statement. “We saw how Project HOME transforms lives and empowers people to be their own agents of change and we share their vision.”
More recently, in 2023, Pam Estadt and Ira Lubert donated $25 million to establish the Estadt-Lubert Collaborative for Housing and Recovery, a collaboration between Project HOME and Temple Health, Penn Medicine and Jefferson Health that will help opioid users find treatment and housing.
While Scullion and McConnon are modest when asked about themselves, they have plenty of good things to say about each other. Scullion is widely known as the face of Project HOME, and its visionary. McConnon, whose strengths are in finance, mostly works behind the scenes, finding ways to fund the solutions that are the backbone of the organization.
Will O’Brien, who has worked with Project HOME since its founding, says the pair’s strengths complement each other. “Joan is often seen as the nuts and bolts financial person. Mary will say that all of her grandiose (ideas) would have been nothing without someone to keep the numbers,” O’Brien says.
In addition to their shared vision, the two leaders are also “both very real people. They’re very normal,” he says. “You might be in awe of what they’ve accomplished, and rightly so, but they’re incredibly down to earth. They both have remarkable gifts, but they recognize that you need to tap into the gifts of people in the community and bring them together.”
Even foes become friends, O’Brien notes. Rendell once jokingly called Scullion the city’s own St. Joan of Arc “because so many people want to burn her at the stake.” Later, he became a Project HOME ally. “I would call it their version of Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence, in that no one is a permanent enemy, but when you need to fight, you fight,” O’Brien says.
We can end this
In December 2023, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released the results of its annual “Point in Time” (PIT) survey, which counts the number of unhoused individuals in the country on one January night. The 2023 tally was 653,100 people, an increase of about 12 percent — or 70,650 more people — from 2022.
Philadelphia’s 2023 PIT survey counted a total of 4,725 people, an increase of about 5.2 percent from the previous year. The increase, Scullion says, is tied to ongoing poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and the opioid crisis.
“We know we can end it. We know we can do it. But our country’s values need to change,” she says.
Progress is difficult to see, McConnon notes. Visitors who see someone living on the streets don’t realize that there were two people in that spot a week ago.
“Every single day, people come off the street. People make the choice to go into recovery … and, on the same day, people spiral into homelessness. That can feel very frustrating, like it’s intractable,” she says. “But folks who are part of our community, who work with our community, see the successes and see the joy and they get energized.”
Success can be measured in many ways. When Sister Mary and McConnon did outreach together, they’d regularly visit a woman who took shelter in the bathroom stalls at 30th Street Station. Every night, they’d ask her to come to a Project HOME facility and every night, she’d turn them down. After months of this, McConnon wondered if their time could be better spent elsewhere.
Scullion disagreed, so the outreach continued. And one day, the woman took them up on their offer of shelter, and she lived in a Project HOME property for the rest of her life.
More recently, Project HOME outreach workers were talking to an unhoused man living in a Kensington parking lot. When the business owner came outside and approached the team, they thought they’d be chased away.
Instead, the man told them he’d once lived at Project HOME. “Tell Sister Mary now I have my own business,” he said.
Some current Project HOME employees became associated with the organization when they needed its services, including one man who could not read or write but now has a sales job. Others who have passed through Project HOME’s doors have gone on to earn advanced degrees and found work in related nonprofits.
Wesley Mitchell says his life changed seven years ago when he moved into a Project HOME apartment. He had support to fight his addictions to drugs and alcohol and opportunities to explore new passions, like art. He reestablished relationships with his estranged family members, taking a trip with his father that the older man talked about until his death.
Now a member of Project HOME’s Board of Trustees, Mitchell says Scullion and McConnon recognized his potential when he didn’t and “saw something in me that I thought had left the building.”
“I thank God for Sister Mary and Joan,” Mitchell, 61, says. “I like my world today. Before, my world was so dark.”
It’s successes like these that propel McConnon and Scullion and others who do this work. “The most generous people I have ever met have been people who have been unsheltered,” McConnon says. “I have seen women and men give up their jackets to someone who is in greater need, or give up their last sandwich. The generosity of folks who have so little and live in such difficult circumstances, is a humbling experience.”
Mary Scullion and Joan Dawson McConnon are two of 11 Philadelphians who will be honored on January 30 at the inaugural Citizen of the Year Awards, featuring MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in conversation with actor and activist George Takei. To buy individual tickets, click here. If your company or organization would like to sponsor the event or purchase seats for a full or half table, please contact [email protected]
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