Pope Francis visit to Philly spurs intiatives to help poor, hungry, homeless

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 Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder of Project HOME, speaks at a press conference in front of the Free Library of Philadelphia announcing the creation of the Francis Fund. (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder of Project HOME, speaks at a press conference in front of the Free Library of Philadelphia announcing the creation of the Francis Fund. (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

Pope Francis will be in Philadelphia for two days this September. But a  group of homeless advocates is hoping to raise $1.5 million to make the impact of his visit extend far beyond those two days. 

It’s a fraction of the $45 million the World Meeting of Families is raising to cover the costs of the weeklong conference, capped off by a visit from the pontiff, but every dollar is precious to people such as Maria Guzman.

The widowed grandmother from Kensington used to sleep on strangers’ front stoops and knock on doors, asking for food.

Eventually, she found help from Community Center at Visitation, an outreach organization run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where Guzman now serves as a volunteer.

“As I believe in God, I believe in angels and that for me means our community centers,” she said. “If it wouldn’t have been for that, I don’t know where I’d be right now exactly or my grandson.”

Guzman is also a member of the WMOF’s hunger and homelessness committee, the group spearheading the Mercy and Justice Initiative, which includes the creation of a temporary charity called the Francis Fund in honor of the papal visit.

Money raised will support organizations in Philadelphia and Camden that work with homeless and hungry people such as the Community Centers at Visitation. A letter-writing campaign will encourage  Congress to pass bills aimed at expanding affordable housing, access to food and job opportunities. An art installation inspired by Pope Francis’ favorite painting, “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” invites people to write their struggles on a strip of cloth. 

Committee members launched the three-pronged initiative at a news conference Monday in front of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The site is not far from where Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass with an estimated 2 million people cramming onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — a place where many of the city’s homeless sleep on benches under the trees that line the boulevard.

The Francis Fund has already raised $600,000 from local donors. 

When he visits Philadelphia, the pope is expected to call for bold action on poverty, a prevailing theme of his papacy. Organizers of the Mercy and Justice Initiative see it as one way for people of all faiths — or no particular faith — to answer that call. 

“If Pope Francis comes to our country, and it’s just a wonderful event, it defeats the purpose,” said Sister Mary Scullion, chair of the committee and head of the homeless outreach Project H.O.M.E. “We have to have a concrete response.”

In a prayer opening Monday’s news conference, Imam Roberto Rashid specifically called on those gaining financially from the papal visit — including those renting out their homes and business owners looking to profit from an influx of visitors — to “breathe economic life back into the community.”

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