City Council Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention | Project HOME

City Council Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention

From the hearing of the Special Committee on Poverty Prevention and Reduction held Thursday, October 10, 2019.
"We are inspired daily by the strength of those who have overcome homelessness and because of this we believe that street homelessness is not inevitable but can be solved."

On October 10, 2019, Sister Mary Scullion appeared before City Council's Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention. Below are her prepared remarks.

On behalf of the entire Project HOME community, I would like to express our deep appreciation for the leadership of Council President Clarke and Co-Chairs Councilmember Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services Eva Gladstein, Urban Affairs Coalition President and CEO Sharmain Matlock-Turner, and One Day At A Time, Inc. President and CEO Mel Wells for calling for this hearing for the Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention.  We look forward to continuing our work with each of you to ensure that City poverty plans have meaningful goals related to people living in deep poverty and a commitment to ending homelessness. Today I am here to talk about a big idea for our community—ending chronic street homelessness—and how this can be realized. 

My name is Sister Mary Scullion and I am the Executive Director at Project HOME, a Philadelphia non-profit organization empowering adults and families to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness through affordable housing, employment, health care, and education.  I am here today with members of the Project HOME Community. Every day we see first-hand the need for housing and employment.

Over the past 30 years, we have developed almost 900 units of affordable housing with supports for persons who have experienced homelessness and low-income persons at-risk of homelessness in Philadelphia. We provide primary medical care and behavioral health services—including Medication Assisted Treatment, dental, pre-natal, and wellness services serving 4,604 unduplicated Philadelphians last year.  We provide educational and workforce solutions programming at the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs.  We also coordinate the Homeless Outreach Coordination Center for the City of Philadelphia and spearhead the Hub of Hope in SEPTA’s concourse that serves about 1,200 guests each week. Since 2008, Project HOME has hosted one of the BenePhilly centers, helping to enroll a total of 110,000 low-income Philadelphians City-wide in public benefits to help pay for groceries, healthcare, education, and utilities. All Benephilly programs bring over $330 million to households throughout the city.

For decades, homelessness has been an intractable social problem. Philadelphia, however, has among the lowest per-capita rates of people living on the street, despite Philadelphia’s highest-ranking poverty rate among large U.S. cities. Building on existing progress, public-private partnerships, and a broad community united by a shared vision that we can solve chronic street homelessness in Philadelphia.  We believe that with more permanent housing through a range of models like Housing First, permanent supportive housing, safe havens and recovery housing coupled with supportive services, meaningful work opportunities, and a stronger community, we can be the first major city to end chronic street homelessness.  We are inspired daily by the strength of those who have overcome homelessness and because of this we believe that street homelessness is not inevitable but can be solved. 

A core conviction of our work has been that “working to end homelessness and poverty enhances the quality of life for everyone in our community”.  We recognize the frustrations of business, tourism, and neighborhoods with the presence of numerous persons on the street and its negative impact on the economic health and viability of the city—while public resources are drained in responding to street homelessness.  At the same time, our community is missing out on the unleashed potential of persons who are diminished and marginalized by street homelessness. We are losing lives to homelessness.  It is in everyone’s interest—the business community, local government, and all Philadelphians—to end street homelessness. Addressing this problem will not only save lives and save money, it will engender greater compassion and human connection.

The Need
Approximately 10,000 people experience homelessness in Philadelphia over the course of a year, many of whom are families especially mothers and children. Of these, about 1,000 people are on the streets on any given night. People who live on our streets represent the most visible of the homeless population. They are the most vulnerable and costly. Most struggle with serious mental illness and addiction and these complex behavioral health needs demand a disproportionate share of public resources. Research by Dr. Dennis Culhane at the University of Pennsylvania found that 20 percent of chronically homeless individuals in Philadelphia accrued at least 60 percent of public service costs.

Due to Philadelphia’s history of innovation, strong network of provider organizations, coordinated street outreach, and historic collaborations, we have made considerable progress. However, we still lack the capacity to adequately serve people in need.  
We believe that the single greatest way to overcome homelessness is through affordable housing. Permanent supportive housing is over 90 percent effective in preventing a return to homelessness, even among those with a serious mental illness and or substance abuse disorder. Permanent supportive housing is a nationally accepted evidence-based practice and has been researched extensively: Permanent supportive housing saves lives and saves money.

Philadelphia has already made significant progress toward this goal with an inventory of approximately 5,000 permanent supportive housing beds. The Office of Homeless Services estimates that we need an additional 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing, plus in order to be able to address the current needs of individuals and families who are homeless with behavioral health needs.

We need to target these permanent supportive housing opportunities to those most at risk who need supports to achieve long-term stability. This includes homeless young adults, who are increasingly part of the street population and who, unless early interventions are made may become chronically street homeless in the future.  It also includes people in recovery, particularly those who need flexible sober housing models and people who are aging and/or medically fragile. 

To appropriately serve the complex and varied needs of these individuals, we need a variety of housing models as noted above, with appropriate services and streamlined access. As you know, housing for people with special needs requires three types of funding: capital, operating, and services funding.  This will require integrating strategies with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbilities (including Medicaid resources), Office of Homeless Services, Housing Trust Fund, and others.  

Prisons have long been our largest mental hospitals and an estimated 76 percent of people in prison struggle with a substance use disorder. Let's prevent incarceration by addressing the treatment and housing for those with special needs.

Employment opportunities are a critical component of breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty and people need work and opportunities that have the potential for advancement.  We should create and expand existing work-first and other innovative employment, training, internship, apprenticeship, and education models as cited in the recent Poverty report issued by City Council.  These opportunities should be low-barrier and should provide individuals the time that is needed to journey from the street to full-time employment.

At Project HOME, we are strongly committed to empowering Project HOME residents and community members to reach their fullest potential as individuals by supporting them through employment and education initiatives rooted in recovery principles. We offer a range of easily accessible and individualized services for individuals to help achieve their workforce and training goals. Through our Workforce Solutions program last year, we placed 183 individuals into jobs, including 77 residents and 106 community members. Through our Library Restroom Attendant Program, 19 attendants are working at the Municipal Services Building and the Central Library and Kensington branches, with plans underway to expand to three additional library branches by the end of the year. Also “same day pay” was initiated by Mental Health Partnership, Mural Arts, Scattergood and Septa to help address panhandling and provide a hand-up and hope to those on the streets.

We need to ensure that individuals have income in order to live and meet basic needs. We need to advocate strongly for the State to raise the minimum wage, to make work pay, and to protect those who cannot work with access to benefits and basic income. There are people living in our community with no income despite our great efforts, since General Assistance was eliminated in August 2019 and there are proposed SNAP/food stamp cuts on the horizon. We must push back against these cuts.  We need to connect people leaving institutions and other systems (corrections, mental and physical health, human services, etc.) to work and to opportunities that have potential for advancement.  We need to maintain and expand Benephilly services to all Philadelphians under 125 percent of the poverty line and include voter registration, tax services, and links to financial/homeownership counseling.  We need to increase access to career-connected education.

Economic Impact
In addition to the urgency of human suffering involved, there are clear dollars-and-sense arguments to eliminating homelessness and poverty.  Research by the Corporation for Supportive Housing showed that providing supportive housing for homeless Medicaid recipients would result in a 24 percent saving of Medicaid costs, plus more to other healthcare systems.  Dr. Dennis Culhane at Penn provided the foundation for our “Saving Lives, Saving Money” report, showing clearly that providing supportive housing for people who are chronically homeless leads to an enormous drop in acute services like incarceration and emergency room visit; and results in a net savings in public resources of $7,000 per person.

On a broader scale, research by Econsult Corporation on the economic and fiscal impact of Project HOME shows that housing people who are homeless is correlated with improved property values and enhances the City’s tax base.  A not-yet-released draft version of this report estimates that “the presence of Project HOME sites are estimated to add around $1.43 billion in value to the house prices of properties within ¼ mile from the sites.”  This results in an estimated additional $20 million in property tax revenue to the City and School District of Philadelphia from 2010 to 2019. 

The savings generated by housing people, the tax benefits of creating safe, decent housing, and the economic impacts of creating new units ($2.35 in overall impact per $1 invested) are some of the resources we would put towards ending homelessness. These are all clear examples of part of the Project HOME mission statement: “We believe that working to end homelessness and poverty enhances the quality of life for everyone in our community.”  

Thank you again for taking on the challenges of reducing poverty in Philadelphia.  We know that with the right coordinated approach—involving the philanthropic community, providers, and the City—we can end chronic street homelessness. We welcome the opportunity for further conversation on how these bills can work to help end the crisis of homelessness as well.  Thank you, City Council, for recognizing that none of us are home until all of us are home.