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Philadelphia's saint of the streets

Sister Mary Scullion has helped Philadelphia become one of the most effective cities in dealing with homelessness. Fourth in a four-part series. 

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Sr. Mary Scullion, cofounder of Project HOME, is seen in this photograph.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Philadelphia can stop calling Sister Mary Scullion its own Mother Teresa. Sure, she is a Roman Catholic nun. She has indeed earned the attention of the wealthy and the well connected. She’s been honored and feted and was even named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. For nearly 40 years, she has spent her days amid homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and poverty. But while she acknowledges her role as a leader against homelessness, she rejects any celebrity. “This is about all of us,” she tells whoever will listen.

Sister Scullion is cofounder and executive director of Project HOME, begun in 1989 as a single emergency winter shelter for homeless men. Today, it is a $30.5 million, multipronged continuum of care aimed at ending chronic homelessness by going at its root causes. It begins with person-to-person appeals to the homeless – many of them addicted or mentally ill – to come inside. There it provides long-term supports – housing, jobs, education, medical care – to keep them from returning to the streets.

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Scullion’s organization coordinates outreach teams and housing placements for all agencies serving the homeless in Philadelphia. The teams, which check daily on the homeless across the city, carry hand-held computer-linked devices. They record each contact with a homeless person. Outreach teams also have real-time data on their devices that track all residence availability in the city, so an individual can be placed in the right care for his or her needs. 

Project HOME has become one of the most effective homeless organizations in the country. Among America’s 10 largest cities, Philadelphia has the worst poverty rate but also one of the lowest rates of homelessness – a phenomenon that many here attribute directly to Scullion’s efforts. 

“I can’t say enough good things about her,” says Emily Riley, executive vice president of the Connelly Foundation, a leading benefactor of Project HOME. A spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor-elect Jim Kenney calls Scullion “a leading advocate for homeless and impoverished Philadelphians.”

•     •     •

Her greatest skill may be her sales ability. To Scullion, Project HOME is all about relationships – and she tries to win over all the people she can. Seemingly everyone yields under her good-
natured tenacity: politicians and philanthropists, corporations and foundations, a city full of volunteers and suburbs full of boosters. She also works the glitterati, and serves on the board of rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s charitable foundation.

Scullion likes to keep moving, chatting, posing, meeting, working whatever room she’s in, viewing whoever is shaking her hand at the moment as a potential ally. Fellow charities are essential partners. She thanked more than 50 of them who gathered recently to share the $1.4 million Francis Fund she established in honor of the pope’s recent visit. “Your work is truly holy work,” she tells them.

Scullion is as credible to the homeless as she is to donors. She is all Philly all the time – a straight-talking, pretense-free, from-the-hood child of Irish immigrants. In the face of not-in-my-backyard conflicts, where already struggling residents fear a Project HOME facility will tarnish the neighborhood, she has moved in herself and personally committed to being a good neighbor. She lives now in a North Philadelphia Project HOME building she shares with clients.

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“We see Sister Mary everywhere,” says Ruben Rivera, a former drug addict from Boston who lives in Project HOME’s St. Elizabeth’s recovery house in North Philadelphia. “There’s not a person in Philly who doesn’t know her, is there?”

In the work that she does, the stakes are huge. At a recent meeting of St. Elizabeth’s residents, a black-draped chair sat empty, representing a resident who recently died of an overdose. House protocol will have it stay that way for 30 days. Scullion urges the two dozen men in attendance to join the larger fight, perhaps drumming up support for a planned recovery house among friends they may have near that facility.

“We need each other,” she tells the men. “And we need God’s grace. Right?”

•     •     •

Scullion’s devotion to the homeless started early. She entered the Sisters of Mercy convent in 1976, then graduated from St. Joseph’s University here and received a master’s degree in social work from Temple University. When she was a young nun teaching seventh grade, she began volunteering in a homeless shelter.

She was taken with the people and once spent her annual religious retreat week sleeping on the streets to better understand the life. And though she rejects the Mother Teresa mantle for herself, that famous nun – along with Dorothy Day and other antipoverty workers who came to Philadelphia in conjunction with Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit – became Scullion’s early inspiration.

“Over the years I think I came to appreciate more deeply the different ways people can effect social change,” she says.

Project HOME continues to evolve. It has spent decades studying, learning, and modifying its approach. “We learned that shelter wasn’t enough. People need homes,” Scullion says. “They need jobs, education, access to health care. They need community.” 

Despite her nonstop efforts to help the needy, Scullion still finds time for other things. She runs. She gets to the Jersey shore. She has dinner with friends. Though she misses being able to escape at the end of a long day to the now-canceled “Colbert Report,” you sense that the ever-resourceful Scullion will find other things to laugh about. In the meantime, she is focused on her Project HOME mantra:

“None of us are home until all of us are home.”