Free at Last!

This story originally appeared in our Spring 2019 Edition of News from HOME.

Throughout our 30th Anniversary in 2019, we will be highlighting stories from our past and articles from our archives. One of the pivotal points in Project HOME’s history was the four-year effort to secure the building at 1515 Fairmount Avenue to develop into our first permanent supportive housing residence. The struggle deepened our commitment to our mission and values, and also gained us much public support, establishing Project HOME as a leader in Philadelphia.

The old song “Amazing Grace” says it well: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.”

48 formerly homeless men and women are on their way home – finally. A June 10 ruling by a panel of federal appellate judges and the subsequent decision by the Rendell Administration to grant reasonable accommodation brought an end to the long and bewildering impasse over 1515 Fairmount. After almost four years of legal battles, marches and rallies, letters and petitions, and many prayers, fair housing has been upheld. 1515 is finally free.

Way back in 1990, Project HOME began plans to develop permanent housing as part of our mission to help chronically homeless persons break the cycle of homelessness. We located the building, obtained an agreement of sale, put together a complete financing package, assembled architectural plans, received Section 8 rental certificates from HUD – even secured zoning. Everything was moving along smoothly, and we eagerly anticipated that 48 men and women who had made the long journey off the streets would soon have a new home.

But a few dangers, toils, and snares got in the way. We ran into a massive wall of NIMBY-ism (“Not In My Back Yard”), the tragically pervasive attitude of community people who want to keep a wall between themselves and those they consider “threatening” or different. Those NIMBY attitudes, fueled by political interests, placed innumerable obstacles in the way of developing 1515 Fairmount. As one of the residents remarked early in the struggle: “I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to get to where I am today, but I’ve never faced anything like this: These people have never met me, and they hate me.”

The struggle for 1515 Fairmount Avenue has been a long and often wearying one. But there has been much grace along the way. We’ve been profoundly inspired by the courage of the formerly homeless men and women in our community who have overcome enormous obstacles and have made amazing  progress in getting off the streets and getting back to productive, stable lives. We have also been inspired by the thousands of people from all walks of life who, because of the controversy over 1515, have come forward to speak out for justice and compassion.

All along, we believed this struggle was about more than one building. “Free 1515!” became a rallying cry in Philadelphia, symbolizing the need for permanent housing and the rights of formerly homeless, recovering, and mentally disabled men and women in our community. What was at stake was not simply an old casket factory but fundamental human and civil rights.  Tragically, many people in our community continued to be stigmatized by irrational fears and stereotypes.

But over these past four years, we have also witnessed an explosion of hope, as an ever-widening community of people who say no to those fears and say yes to a truly inclusive, truly compassionate society that welcomes and celebrates the dignity and gifts of each person.

We dedicate this moment to countless friends who spoke out, who wrote and phoned, who rallied and marched, who prayed and kept faith – those of you who supported this effort in a thousand small and big ways. Thanks to your concern, commitment, and effort, 48 formerly homeless men and women will no longer be victims of discrimination but will be able to live in their own homes with dignity.

We give thanks for all of you who accompanied Project HOME on this long journey home. And we give thanks for the grace that leads all of us home.

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