Take Five!  Q & A with Sister Mary Scullion


Expert Q & A | July 18, 2007

Sister Mary Scullion
Executive Director and President, Project H.O.M.E.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
I think the most daunting and pressing issue is that cities and localities are facing an ever-increasing number of people who are homeless and are forced to make increasingly difficult allocation decisions with a smaller pool of resources. Today, cities are forced to use limited resources to address the national problem of the institutionalization of an underclass. Housing affordability is an especially complicated matter because some poor families are doing everything “right” – working, going to school, protecting their families – and still can not manage to get out of poverty. Another segment lives with profound barriers, special needs such as mental illness, ex-offender status, and other obstacles that require government resources.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
That the one thing that all homeless people have in common is that they are poor. We tend to forget this. Years ago, when government benefits or minimum wage or other support was sufficient to afford housing (even if a person had a substance abuse or mental illness issue, he or she could often afford a place to live), there was no homelessness. Today, the gap between low-income people and the cost of housing is significantly larger, making it impossible for many working people and families to even afford housing. In an ideal world, instead of creating more and more housing programs, we would be attacking this problem at its roots – economic opportunity. With improvements in public education, job growth, and accessible healthcare (coupled with public cash benefits that actually cover expenses for those who need them), we can defeat homelessness. We must develop a two-pronged strategy to both address the needs of people who are homeless today and also develop strategies to prevent homelessness and poverty for a future generation of young people through quality education, healthcare, and community supports.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
In the early 1970s I was volunteering at St. John’s Hospice, which is a soup kitchen that serves about 300 men each evening, we began to notice women at the end of the soup line, a relatively new phenomenon at that time. Then there were no shelters for women in Philadelphia. So S. Mary Klock organized a group of volunteers to each take a night to stay with the women. After we were finished volunteering at St. John’s, we drove a handful of women to St. Rita’s Hall where we set up cots, spent the night, made coffee the next morning. The women left around 7 a.m. and we went to work. It was a very simple, voluntary operation.

I grew to know and care about the women and continued to volunteer. In 1978, I asked to work full time at Mercy Hospice, which it developed out of the experience at St. Rita’s and opened in 1976. Mercy Hospice was an emergency shelter for women and children (The longest anyone stayed was 30 days and we were able to find affordable housing for everyone in that time limit…really!) and it had a day program for the women on the street.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I draw my inspiration from the people that I work with every day. From the men and women who have defeated every obstacle to get their lives back from the staff at Project H.O.M.E. who work with incredible tenacity, persistence, and intelligence. The person experiencing homelessness, myself, donors, volunteers, we’re all being transformed and changed. No matter what situation you are in, you can be a leader by adhering to the fundamental dignity of every person—whether you’re the poorest person or the richest person, whether you’re the most talented person or you’re limited in some way, or whether you’re the healthiest person or you’re sick. I am always amazed that just when we hit a brick wall, a door will open in the struggle against homelessness.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Over the past 30 years, I have seen dramatic changes in the landscape of homelessness. In the 70s, homelessness was a relatively rare experience and it truly was an “emergency” situation. In the 80s and beyond, the economic and social realities have produced a chronic and ever-growing population of people who are homeless. However with meaningful opportunities I have seen people transform their lives and succeed in living a quality life and participate in our community. Every day at Project H.O.M.E. I see people triumph. What works is being able to respond in a meaningful way to the genuine needs of people who are experiencing homelessness. And the people who are actually homeless are like a prophetic sign in our society that something’s radically wrong. So I see that, actually, their plight is what transforms so many in our society to be more human. It’s definitely a very reciprocal process of transformation where everyone has a role to play in making this a more just and compassionate society.