Compassionate Advocacy: The Legacy of Genny O’Donnell

Will O'Brien

Project HOME outreach worker Genny O’Donnell got a call on a cold December day in 1999.  A man she knew from the streets, who had been chronically homeless for over ten years, was in the hospital. He had been hit by a bus and sustained serious injuries. He didn’t remember the incident, and wasn’t clear how he had gotten there. He had no family, and Christmas was coming. After the initial visit, Genny returned a couple of days before Christmas and decorated his hospital room with a Christmas tree, as well as bringing him some treats he wanted. Then, on Christmas Day, she and her sister went back to the hospital to spend time with him, bringing him a framed photo of the outreach staff.

That personal commitment was key to Genny’s success as an outreach worker. She refused to accept attitudes that saw persons on the streets as disposable, invisible, or anonymous. She touched the lives of thousands of persons – and in many cases, literally saved their lives.

We were shocked and saddened to hear of Genny’s sudden passing on December 21. For decades she was a shining light in the struggle against homelessness and a fierce advocate for justice and dignity for all persons.

Genny first came to work with Project HOME in 1995, having already worked on street outreach with the Center City District. For ten years, she was a vital part of our Outreach Coordination Center. She fully embodied the Project HOME mission and values, building trusting relationships with the most vulnerable persons on the streets. An ardent photographer, Genny took personal photos of many of her friends from the streets, knowing how such a portrait made people feel more valuable.

Genny came to Project HOME at a particularly contentious time. Despite a vigorous protest campaign, the City of Philadelphia had passed the Sidewalk Behavior Ordinances, which sought to deal with the increasing number of persons on the streets of Center City. Through the advocacy of Project HOME and a broad coalition, the final version of the Ordinance was changed from a mainly policing policy to one that required police to contact outreach teams before issuing any citations to persons on the streets.  In the wake of the passing of the Ordinance, the OCC created a special position of liaison to community groups to education them about street homelessness and solicit their partnership in developing effective solutions.  The Ordinance also helped to expand outreach staff and services. Having taken on the position of director of the OCC, Genny’s leadership was critical in this tumultuous time, both in deepening the work of street outreach and educating the public about the need for effective solutions and wider partnerships.

“Genny provided the OCC with unwavering leadership that was guided by kindness, dedication, hard work, and most of all love,” said Carol Thomas, also a long-time veteran of street outreach who currently serves as Project HOME’s Director of Homeless Services. Many people were inspired, Carol said, by Genny’s conviction that “compassionate advocacy will bring about change.”

In 2004, Genny felt called to put her skills toward the underserved homeless population in Montgomery County, where she founded the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center (CHOC). With her passion, expertise, and experience, she succeeded in helping numerous persons break the cycle of homelessness.

“We don’t look at people and what kind of illness they have and what their addiction is,” Genny said in a 2001 interview about the work of outreach. “We don’t classify anybody by their ‘diagnostic code’ or anything like that. Everybody has the potential to turn their life around, and our role basically is to help them to do that and to explore the possibilities and the options they have to do that. And we do that simply by treating them well, by getting to know them, by hanging out with them on the street, by taking them to the hospital when they need it -- even by not getting mad when they do something like spit on us or swear at us.”

Genny saw that potential in ever person, and knew that it was the seed of transformation. She midwifed thousands of such transformations – and her work continues to do so, even after her passing.

You can read an obituary of Genny at There will be a Memorial Service for her on Saturday, January 11 at 9:00 am at Church on the Mall in Plymouth Meeting; 500 W Germantown Pike #1900, Plymouth Meeting, PA.

You can honor Genny’s legacy by making a donation to the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center (CHOC), which is developing a new residence for in her memory for persons who have experienced homelessness (


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