Envisioning a Different Society

Will O'Brien
Sister mary speaking with supporters

Today’s posting is taken from a recent talk given by S. Mary Scullion, Project HOME’s co-founder and Executive Director.

Over the past 20 years, we have come to see that homelessness represents a complex mixture of many factors: poverty, unemployment, disability, inadequate education, lack of access to health care, addictions, community and family breakdown, personal and social alienation.

ny homeless person has his or her own very personal, very unique story. At the same time, we need to recognize that the vast majority of persons who struggle with homelessness have been affected by some very powerful social forces. The modern phenomenon of homelessness in America has not always been with us.

It is not inevitable. It is not an unavoidable side effect of modern urban life. Nor is it unsolvable. Homelessness emerged over the past thirty to forty years because of very concrete social, economic, political, and even cultural forces, which we can identify – and which we can transform. We do not have to accept homelessness. We can talk realistically about ending homelessness – but it will take more than good nonprofit organizations or charity. It will require political advocacy – without which the very supports people need to overcome homelessness will not be available, accessible, or effective. And it will require difficult but important dialogue about social and cultural values.

First, we need to understand homelessness in an even more radical sense – that is, going to the roots. I believe it is no longer sufficient to focus simply or uniquely on the issue of “homelessness.” 

Homelessness is in part the tip of the iceberg of a broader crisis of poverty and obscene inequities of wealth and deprivation.

Homelessness is in part the tip of the iceberg of a broader crisis of poverty and obscene inequities of wealth and deprivation. I believe we are coming closer to the truth when we understand that the phenomenon of homelessness, in both its personal and social dimensions, represents many different forces at work: the failure of an economic system that has left an increasing number of persons dispensable; the failure of an education system which has left far too many people ill-equipped for our modern economy; the failure of health-care systems to provide persons with either effective preventative health care or needed treatment for serious diseases; the breakdown of families and communities, usually under the enormous stress of these other failed systems; and even the corroding of a social ethos of mutual care and support.

At Project HOME, we believe that the poverty we see in our neighborhoods is nothing short of structural violence. It is not by accident nor, as some suggest, by high incidence of personal irresponsibility that whole neighborhoods are ghettoized and trapped in vicious poverty.

Lower North Philadelphia has been victimized by decades of economic and social disinvestment and systemic racist practices, including red-lining. Largely because of political neglect, basic social systems in these neighborhoods – including schools and hospitals — are often in miserable shape, offering the most meager of services. As the job base has hemorrhaged, meaningful economic opportunity is minimal, and families, residents, and communities collapse under the stress of the struggle for survival. Drugs, crime, and family breakdown all exacerbate the alienation and marginalization of these distressed communities. Underlying these inequities are social choices about priorities and resources.

We are in effect creating a dual society: In one society, those deemed worthy are provided with the resources and tools they need to succeed and to flourish. In that society, there is sufficient social investment in quality education and health care, in a well-oiled infrastructure and a humane and well-kept social environment. People have access to genuine economic opportunity and the chance to develop their gifts and flourish. In the other America, we are assigning people to second-class status. We tell them to make do with minimal resources, shoddy social systems, and the scantest of hopes for a bright future. We leave them to fight over crumbs, to try and survive – as long as they stay in their place and don’t create trouble for the privileged society.

My experience has convinced me that the men, women, and children who sleep on our city streets are a prophetic presence in our midst: they represent a profound symbol to our society, warning us that something has gone radically wrong. We need to realize that what is at stake in our response to homelessness is not just the specific circumstances of men, women, and children who are homeless. It is no less than the very basic health and vitality and quality of life of our entire community. Ultimately, the issues homeless and poor people face are our issues: decent, affordable housing; quality education; employment at a livable wage; a health care system that meets our needs; healthy communities that nurture healthy families; freedom from discrimination.

At Project HOME, we stress in our mission statement that all our work is rooted in our spiritual conviction of the dignity of all persons. The men and women we get to know and build relationships with suffer from homelessness, poverty, addiction, and mental illness. Worse, they have felt the dehumanization of a society that stigmatizes and marginalizes them because of their situations and their struggles. We have learned over the years that, in addition to providing effective and professional services, one of the most transformative aspects of our work is simple to affirm a person’s dignity, to stress that whatever their situation, we believe they have gifts, worth, and potential, and that they, no less than anyone else, deserve the chance to flourish in life. We have also learned the amazing truth that in this process we are also affirming our own dignity and worth.

At Project HOME, we envision a very different society: one in which each person has an inviolable dignity, a sacred and unshakable goodness. We envision a society in which each man, woman, and child is given the opportunity and resources to flourish and achieve his or her fullest potential. We dare to believe that even the men and women who live in our streets and in our poorest neighborhoods deserve the best and brightest future, and that they have gifts to contribute to a healthy and thriving community.

None of us are home until all of us are home®