Sister Mary Scullion reflects on helping Philly’s unhoused over 40 years, and what Project HOME residents taught her

Sister Mary Scullion and a Project HOME resident discuss her community impact and what she learned over the last 50 years.

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Sister Mary Scullion posing for a photo with Thomas

Thomas (left) with Project Home co-founder Sister Mary Scullion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Just because Sister Mary Scullion is stepping down from Project HOME does not mean she will stop helping people who are unhoused. It is quite the opposite, she said.

“We have to have that vision of what we want for the country and our community for the long haul. All of us have to be involved in making those solutions a reality,” Sister Scullion said. “It doesn’t matter what you do or what your profession is, but to care enough about the common good.”

Sister Scullion plans to dedicate even more time doing boots-on-the-ground work. That is how she began her work in advocacy more than 40 years ago.

Her effort has gained national acclaim. In 2009, she was named one of TIME’s 100 “Most Influential People of the Year.” Over the years, Project HOME has become a model to follow to assist those who are unsheltered.

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Sister Scullion is intent on quickening the pace for more long-term support and pushing for better policies to address the increase in need.

The latest ‘State of the City 2023’ report by Pew Charitable Trusts showed that the share of adults experiencing homelessness remained at 45%. (Pew Charitable Trusts)

Project HOME’s latest assessment showed that approximately 8,206 people and families accessed emergency shelters in Philadelphia last year. The nonprofit HopePHL reported that more than 3,800 children and youth experienced homelessness in the 2022 school year, using data from the Philadelphia Department of Education and Philadelphia school district.

Emergency help is not enough, she contends, and the data bears that out. Each year, Project HOME has had to turn people away because of limited capacity, according to their online report.

This summer, Sister Scullion and fellow co-founder Joan Dawson McConnon announced their transition out of leadership. For her, no longer being at the helm of the nationally-renowned organization gives her more time to spend with the community she has served for the last 50 years.

Since she first started, the rates of homelessness have risen year over year.

The latest data from the Office of Homeless Services and Project HOME show that nearly 4,500 people experienced homelessness in 2022. But the data only scratches the surface.

This motivates Sister Scullion to find the people who have “fallen through the cracks.”

She said in the near future, she will be able to pivot from the administrative and organizational responsibilities to focus on the people and policy advocacy.

“[I want] to be able to spend my time with people who are unsheltered, learning from them and hopefully encouraging them along the way,” she told WHYY News. “It’s really not that much different than what I’ve done in the past, but that’s kind of what I want to do.”

‘I just started’

Over the last several decades, Sister Scullion has become a Philadelphia namesake for her advocacy, persistence, and leadership. In 2020, her friend and supporter Jon Bon Jovi called her the “Michael Jordan on the issue of homelessness.

Her foray into advocacy began in the 1970s, during her college years as a volunteer.

“Community service was a big part of the curriculum. So I started just working with people who were living on the street,” she said.

Sister Scullion took to the streets, at one time sleeping in a tent with unsheltered people she knew for one week. That experience opened her eyes to the harsh conditions of being unsheltered. She said what was most striking was how difficult it was to access basic necessities like food and water.

She was drawn to help the women, many of whom had mental illness or disabilities, and were part of the groups that were deinstitutionalized in the mid-1950s. The deinstitutionalization movement of 1955 pushed for “community-based treatment.” As a result, many state mental hospitals shuttered, leaving people with mental illness with nowhere to go.

Sister Scullion learned many of these women would much rather sleep on the streets than in a state hospital because of previous experience.

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Conversations with those women also shone a light on the intersections of need. Key tenets of the solutions, she said, include safe, affordable housing, financial stability, and education.

That inspired her to open Women of Hope in 1985, which she ran for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Women of Hope supports women with chronic mental illness and housing insecurity.

But Sister Scullion did not stop there, citing the lessons she gleaned from people she met along the way. Her relationships with people who experienced homelessness gave her insight into how the affordable housing crisis was impacting people with very little.

Sister Scullion and McConnon saw a need to expand the supportive services they had been providing to the women to others in the community. In the late 1980s, the needs of Vietnam-era veterans and men with mental illness had increased. She saw more unsheltered people and fewer housing opportunities.

Project HOME began that winter in 1988, in a swimming pool locker room at Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philly. Today, the organization has opened 1,000 housing units across Philadelphia.

Sister Scullion has been working to close the gap of need for people without a place to call home since the 1980s. Since then, she said, the issue of homelessness has only gotten worse, as housing has become more unaffordable.

National data paints a similar picture.

Homelessness has been on the rise across the nation recently, with a modest 17% decline between 2007 and 2017, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. After 2017, the number of people experiencing homelessness rose exponentially.

Since then, the rates of chronic homelessness reached historic highs.

Notably, the pandemic caused another rift, affecting vulnerable communities that were low-income, already housing insecure, or at the brink of eviction.

In Philadelphia, homelessness has risen by 5.2%, according to the city’s most recent point-in-time count. The Department of Housing and Urban Development report from 2022  It has been rising for the past two years, studies show, a result of economic instability caused by the pandemic.

This tracks what Project HOME leaders have seen over the last decade-plus.

Data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness show who is most at risk and how high housing costs contribute to higher rates of homelessness.

Scullion put it plainly, and said that affordable housing policies would curb the number of homeless we see today. For years, she has been speaking up and pushing for change.

Scullion’s persistence has had a far-reaching impact on nationwide policy. She has been on the frontlines of protests since her early years, has presented to the Philadelphia City Council chambers, and been a guest on programs like the Queen Latifah Show.

No matter the platform, Scullion’s message remains the same.

“We can help change public policy and be a witness that homelessness is a solvable problem if we have the political will,” she said.

Her tenacity and teamwork mindset is credited by many in the city.

Ericka Brown-Boulware, who experienced homelessness as a single mom, said Project HOME and Sister Scullion gave her a second chance.

Today she is a street outreach and supervisor at Valley Youth House, where she connects youth experiencing homelessness.

“[Sister Mary] Scullion and Project HOME is forever in my heart,” Brown-Boulware said, placing her hand on her heart. “They helped me address my depression. They helped me address my addiction and then helped me remember the skills that I had.”

More recently, a Project HOME resident named Thomas said Scullion helped him find a way to recover from substance abuse.

When he first moved to Philadelphia, Thomas wound up at the corners of Kensington and Allegheny. He became estranged from his daughter and family as a whole.

“I made a decision to do some wrong things,” he said.

Thomas said day-to-day life responsibilities had fallen by the wayside. But he was determined to get clean and went to rehab. During that time, however, he had not paid his rent. When he returned from rehab, he was evicted.

So, with nowhere else to turn, he went to Scullion’s office on Fairmount Avenue.

The front desk staff told him she was in a meeting and that he would need to make an appointment to see her. Undeterred, he came back the next day and waited for her to come out.

Scullion walked out of the office and took him to a room.

“She asked me what’s on my mind, and I told her my situation,” he said. “I specifically said, ‘Sister Mary, can you please tell them people don’t evict me? Just let me stay there. I’m not doing the things I used to do. I’m a better person now.’

“And she looked at me. She said, ‘No, who would that be helping?’”

Scullion instead put him into contact with Sacred Heart, a residential program, where he found peer support, substance abuse counseling, and learned how to manage his new life. Without that help, he said, he would not be where he is today.

“I began dealing with issues that I have abandoned from my past, reconnecting my relationship with my daughter, getting on top of my health appointments. The reality is I had to do what I should have been doing anyway,” he said, his voice breaking. “I can see how I can be a part of the solution. I’m grateful right now because I know where I’ve been.”

Scullion said Thomas and others who have been part of Project HOME’s community taught her to keep learning and growing.

“Let’s face it. Okay, like we all have our challenges and our need for self-reflection and self-improvement. We all need that,” she said. “Sometimes for some folks it’s more public than it is for others.”

Thomas, she said, is a prime example of how Project HOME’s peer support model works.

“No one can do it for you. Right? No one can do it for you,” she said. “But we do need one another, to believe in us and to inspire us to see the people that we are called to be.”

Over the next several months, she and co-founder Joan Dawson McConnon will begin to hand the reins over to Project HOME’s successor. They have yet to publicly announce who their successors are but told WHYY News they are “confident” in the organization’s future.

Scullion is steadfast in her mission, which is a full circle moment getting back to basics where she can be with the people who got her in this line of work in the first place.

“We all need a safe place to call home. We need a physical home. We need a spiritual home,” she said. “We need a home that’s our community where we can help one another be you know in relationship with one another.”

Editor’s note: WHYY News respects the privacy of Project HOME residents and is not using Thomas’ last name.

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