A Sanctuary of Hope and Dignity
During the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, as the crisis of homelessness was taking an increasing toll in Philadelphia, many grassroots groups were coming together to find solutions and to challenge the political and economic systems that were failing to adequately respond. It was during this period that Project HOME was born, as part of a broader movement. One of our partners was Empty the Shelters, a housing-rights and economic-justice organization based in Philadelphia but with chapters nationwide. It was founded and led by young people working in tandem with men and women and families experiencing homelessness.
One of the founders of Empty the Shelters was Gloria Casarez. Growing up in Kensington, Gloria was a passionate and dynamic advocate for economic justice. A brilliant organizer and coalition-builder, she never hesitated to take to the streets for the things she believed in. Early on, Project HOME provided office space for Empty the Shelters. Gloria and her fellow students inspired us with their energy and commitment.
Gloria’s passion for justice led her to become a civil-rights leader and LGBTQ activist, in Philadelphia and across the nation. She was appointed the City of Philadelphia’s first director of the Mayor’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs, a position she held until her tragic death in 2014 from cancer at the age of 42.
As the latest effort in responding to the growing number of homeless youth in our city, a large percentage of whom are LGBTQ, Project HOME made plans to develop a new safe and affirming residence for that very population. The name for this new residence, for which we broke ground on December 6, was clear to us: the Gloria Casarez Residence.
This residence, so aptly named, bears witness to a strong LGBTQ community in Philadelphia, which also shares our conviction that homelessness is solvable in our lifetime. The success of the project is due largely to the leadership and commitment of John Alchin, Mel Heifetz, Arthur Kaplan, Hal Maryatt, Duane Perry, and the Philadelphia Foundation, as well as many other caring Philadelphians.
For the past several years, Project HOME has been developing new programs to meet the needs of young adults, who represent one of the largest growing segments of the homeless population nationwide. Each year, approximately 1,000 young adults age out of foster care in Pennsylvania. Just a few days before the groundbreaking for the Gloria Casarez Residence, the City of Philadelphia released a report showing that nearly 600 young persons were homeless on one August night. Thirty-one percent of that group identified as LGBTQ – nationwide that figure is close to 40 percent – and their situations of homelessness are often connected to family and societal rejection.
Working with the Neubauer Catalyst for Young Adults Program, Project HOME currently serves more than 50 young adults, living primarily at JBJ Soul Homes, Francis House of Peace, and the newly open Ruth Williams House. We have partnered with local LGBTQ organizations to provide appropriate supports.
This new project takes that commitment to a new level. The Gloria Casarez Residence will be the first young adult-only, LGBTQ-friendly permanent supportive housing in Pennsylvania. Scheduled to open later in 2018, the residence will be a new-construction four-story, 36,547-square-foot building at 1315 North 8th Street – not far from where Gloria did much of her early organizing. It will include 30 affordable units for young adults (age 18-23 at entry) who currently are or have been homeless or are at risk of homelessness. The residence will also feature a community room and a large outdoor courtyard to accommodate events and gatherings. Residents will have access to a range of services at Project HOME, including employment, education, and healthcare services, in addition to case management, life skills, and community-building activities and programs.
The Gloria Casarez Residence is the sixth project funded by MPower, a community investment partnership that is multiplying the impact of Project HOME’s proven approaches to breaking the cycle of homelessness. The partnership focuses on revitalizing entire communities, including building new homes and programs to support vulnerable individuals and breaking the cycle of homelessness for young adults.
Speaking at the groundbreaking, Project HOME’s Executive Director Sister Mary Scullion said, “Every young adult, regardless of social status, race, gender, or sexual orientation, deserves to be treated with respect. Every young adult deserves a fighting chance – a chance to grow up and face the challenges of the adult world with a stable home. With a place to return to at night and feel safe and protected. A sanctuary as they figure out the adult they want to become. Gloria Casarez believed that. She worked every day to improve the lives of every single member of our city’s LGBTQ community.”
Gloria’s wife, Tricia Dressel, also served as Project HOME’s Director of Human Resources for many years, so she is especially grateful for all that the new residence represents. “Gloria believed that allies and community members working to advance LGBTQ civil-rights issues were simply standing up for justice and equality for all,” she said. “It is my hope that this residence will serve as a safe and welcoming place for healing and inspiration for a new generation of LGBTQ community leaders.”
As the construction starts at the corner of North 8th Street and West Thompson Street in North Philadelphia, we grieve the passing of this compassionate, dynamic leader at such a young age. But when its doors open and we welcome 30 young people to that sanctuary of home and hope, the Gloria Casarez Residence will be a powerful and fitting testimony to her life’s work. It will bring us one step closer to ending homelessness, and it will shine as a beacon to the dignity and potential of each person in our society.
We are grateful to the many public and private partners who made the Gloria Casarez Residence possible. The City of Philadelphia; Raymond James Tax Credit Funds; TD Bank; Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency; Philadelphia Housing Authority; US Department of Housing and Urban Development; City of Philadelphia Division of Housing and Community Development; Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Leigh and John Middleton; John Alchin and Hal Marryatt; William Penn Foundation; Arthur Kaplan and Duane Perry; Mel Heifetz; Aileen and Brian Roberts; Ira Lubert and Pam Estadt; The Neubauer Family Foundation; Maguire Foundation; and The Philadelphia Foundation.