Homeless program in Germantown connects with community

For a woman of tiny stature, Mary Ellen Graham would not initially seem like she packed much power. But when fortitude and heart drives what was once a simple dream, stature does not matter.

Back 2007, Graham worked at St. Vincent’s Health Provisions Center. There, she saw fairly large numbers of middle-aged men who were disabled but had no place to call home. What she didn’t see was anybody doing anything to help.

So, she decided to do it herself by opening the not-for-profit My Place Germantown at 209 E. Price St. Its mission is to reduce homelessness in Germantown by providing permanent supportive housing for homeless males with strong ties to the area.

Now, thanks to Graham and the organization, 12 men now have somewhere to call home.

The process

First, she had to form a not-for-profit corporation. Then, she had to find a partner, apply for funding, locate a building and then renovate it to be suitable for disabled residents. After all that, she had to get zoning approval.

Three years of effort paid off that Nov. 2010 day when the building was dedicated.

“That was a source of satisfaction for me, that down to every detail, towels in the bathroom, cutlery in the kitchen, pots and pans, dishes, they had absolutely everything that we thought they would need,” Graham said. “I wanted the very, very best we could produce, for guys who rarely had the very best offered to them.”

What’s more, the building is in a residential neighborhood, which Graham deemed important so as to give the men the opportunity, and the roots, to stay in Germantown. It provided a sense of community.

Connecting with neighbors

“The neighborhood … has become very attached to our residents,” she said. “They have come and given our guys surprise birthday parties. They are concerned if some of them are struggling. But, it’s a real lesson in the concerns, the anxiety based on the unknown. When the known comes into play, the anxiety washes away. Sometimes I find it hard to believe it has happened.”

Rose Pruett, a neighbor and retired Philadelphia School District employee, said she finds herself attending many My Place Germantown events.

“I am just happy that the building is being used in such a wonderful way,” Pruett said.

Connecting with peers, too

A sense of community has grown inside the building, as well. The men live together and have become friends thanks to the recreational activities that sometimes grow organically.

For example, every Sunday morning, the men wake up, head downstairs, make coffee and discuss, among other things, politics. That has really helped resident Michael Mailey.

“My Place Germantown is a perfect way for me to do better,” he said. “It provides a great environment for me to be in.”

Graham did not just create a home for 12 men; she provided them with a level of dignity, respect and care. Instead of people judging, there is acceptance.

“Just physically being able to look out the window and see trees, to have this kind of sunlight, this is a rarity for some of our guys,” she said. “My Place Germantown has opened a new world for a number of them.”

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Kelsey Doenges and Amanda DiLoreto are students at Temple University. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

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