Q&A: Sister Mary Scullion

Sister Mary Scullino
Project HOME founder Sister Mary Scullion has been working to end homelessness in Philadelphia for more than four decades. She will speak to Georgetown College graduates at Saturday's Commencement exercises. (Photo courtesy Project HOME)

May 16, 2017 — The 2017 Georgetown College Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient is Sister Mary Scullion.

Sister Mary is president and executive director of Project HOME, an immensely successful service and advocacy group for people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. TIME named her to its “100 Most Influential People” list in 2009, and the Philadelphia Inquirer named her Citizen of the Year in 2011. She is both a tireless ground-level worker to alleviate homelessness in Philadelphia and a passionate advocate for fair housing policies on a national scale.

We spoke with Sister Mary in advance of Saturday’s Commencement ceremonies to learn more about her life, her mission, and what brought her to Georgetown.

Georgetown College: What motivated you to choose a religious vocation?

Sister Mary Scullion: I loved the mission of the Sisters of Mercy: to work directly with those that are poor, sick, and uneducated (especially women), and to provide those people with opportunities. I love their work; their spirit of mercy and justice; and their commitment to community.

GC: Tell me about founding Project HOME.

SMS: I started working with the men, women and children experiencing homelessness in 1975, mainly though emergency shelters. We all perceived homelessness as a crisis – we needed emergency shelters, because people were just experiencing emergency situations. Over the years, we saw that housing supply was being strained for the bottom rung of the economic ladder. We realized that homelessness — while an emergency situation for some initially —was a permanent reality for many people, because of a lack of affordable housing and changes in federal housing policy that institutionalized homelessness. It was becoming a permanent situation, especially for people with special needs, people who were mentally ill, people who were addicted, mothers, and children.

In 1989, Joan McConnon and I decided we wanted to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness. Project HOME stands for affordable Housing, Opportunities for employment, Medical care, and Education, because we see these four areas as the most important for ending and preventing homelessness. Our vision statement is “None of us are at home until all of us are at home,” and it’s rooted in strong spiritual conviction of the dignity of every person.

In 28 years, we’ve developed 800 units of housing, The Stephen Klein Wellness Center (including medical care, behavioral health services, a dental clinic and legal counseling), and the Honickman Learning Center Comcast Technology Labs as a center for education and workforce development located in second poorest zip code in Philadelphia.

GC: What is most difficult about your job?

SMS: It’s difficult to make the broader community understand that we can end homelessness — what we lack is the political will. Knowing that we can end it and not being able to do so because of that is the most difficult thing.

GC: Most rewarding?

SMS: Being a member of the Project HOME community, and working on this issue with the most incredible people you’d ever meet —especially those who have experienced homelessness. The strength and resilience of the people experiencing homelessness inspires me every day.

We partner with so many other organizations and people, and we always want to engage more because we think the solution lies within all of us. There’s short term efforts, but also long term commitments that need to be rooted in advocacy for these issues — today, we focus on affordable housing; for the future, we invest in quality education.

GC: Is there one achievement makes you the proudest?

SMS: I’m proud to be part of a community of people from all walks of life, all dedicated to ending homelessness. We can’t rest until we end it in our city and in our country, and we still have a ways to go. I’m grateful for our staff, donors, trustees, partner organizations, and huge army of volunteers — well over 500.

GC: Why Georgetown?

SMS: I was nominated by Prof. Alan Mitchell (of Georgetown’s theology department). I am Jesuit-educated myself at St. Joseph’s University, and I have a strong relationship with the Jesuit community. One of my heroes is Fr. Horace McKenna, who started the McKenna Center, situated on the grounds of Gonzaga College High School. It’s a center on campus for people experiencing homelessness — the only one of its kind in the country, I believe. It’s really awesome for the students there to work directly with men and women who are experiencing homelessness as a key aspect to their service learning.

Fr. McKenna is someone that we did look up to: He lived and walked with people who were homeless. He embodied Pope Francis’ call for a “revolution of tenderness.” Fr. McKenna and Fr. Ed Brady — my mentor at St. Joseph’s —  got myself and many others in Philadelphia connected with Jesuit spirituality.

Mark McConnon, the husband of [Project HOME co-founder] Joan McConnon, is also a Georgetown alum and continues to live the Jesuit values of social justice and striving to be a person for others.

GC: Without spoiling your speech, do you have any advice for social-justice-inclined college students?

SMS: In addition to getting an excellent academic education, it’s equally important to work directly with, know, and walk beside people in our society and in our world who are struggling and suffering — be it people on the street, immigrants, or refugees. Touch the pain and suffering around us, and through that, help to affect the injustice and suffering, but you too will be transformed. Students often lead by example.

GC: What do you want people to know about you that they might not know already?

SMS: I have a good sense of humor! And I love working with and being with young leaders and people who are on fire about changing our world.

Interview conducted by Patrick Curran and edited for length and clarity.