by Rita Charleston
If necessity is the mother of invention, add a strong feeling of community involvement to the mix, and you might come up with someone like Mary Ellen Graham.
An academic, educator, writer and the mother of six, Graham, 76, is the force behind the creation of My Place Germantown, a fully renovated, safe, spacious house that 12 previously homeless men now call home.
The seed probably was planted in 1991 when Graham joined St. Vincent DePaul Church, which is famous for its outreach programs and social justice focus. Along the way, she was seriously involved in several community projects, even traveling to Africa at one point where she was offered a unique, full-time position at a university in Tanzania.
“When I returned home, I realized I couldn’t devote the time necessary to accept such a position and that there was a lot I could do here. So I began mainly by working for the Catholic Archdiocese’s Mercy Hospice, the oldest shelter and recovery house for women in the city of Philadelphia.”
At one point, Graham, who has a master’s degree in English from what is now Arcadia University in Glenside, was a full-time coordinator of the writing center and tutorial services at Chestnut Hill College when she had what she refers to as “a conversion kind of experience.” Poet and social advocate Edwina Gateley, a speaker at the college’s International Women’s Day event, so inspired Graham that she volunteered at Philadelphia’s Women of Change, a shelter for the homeless. “It sounds hokey,” she admitted, “but then I wanted to leave academia in order to serve the poor full-time.”
It was 2007 when she discovered there was a large number of men in Germantown between the ages of 40 and 55 who had very few housing options.
“Many were unemployed and most faced serious disabilities, such as physical or mental health issues, and long-term substance abuse issues,” Graham explained. “They represented a whole spectrum of disabilities and my sense of justice was deeply offended by the fact that they were being neglected. While there were shelters for women, for the most part these men were being perceived almost as lepers, people who a friend of mine called ‘the throwaway people.’”
Finding that no one wanted to come out to Germantown to create a home for the hard-to-place, Graham decided to do it on her own. It took three years, but finally, in November, 2010, My Place Germantown opened at 209 E. Price St. Located on one acre of land, it’s hard to miss the building, brightly painted in raspberry and orange.
My Place Germantown boasts 12 efficiency apartments, complete with kitchenettes, full closets and private baths. Two units are wheelchair accessible, and a third is accessible for the hearing and/or visually impaired.
“The men, who can stay as long as they like, are chosen on the basis of need, coming from living on the streets, an emergency shelter or transitional housing,” Graham said. “They must have had a recent episode of homelessness and/or be certifiably disabled.”
Neighborhood resources include a health clinic, legal services, a food pantry, a learning lab literacy program and more. Professional support services such as a case manager and resident advocates to provide 24/7 support are also available.
For her work, Graham received an Access Achievement Award from the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities of the City of Philadelphia in 2011. She was honored for “outstanding commitment to increase access for people with disabilities through the removal of physical and attitudinal barriers” for creating My Place Germantown, Philadelphia’s first permanent supportive housing for homeless men with mental and physical disabilities.
“In the beginning, the major issue I had to face was hearing the word ‘no’ from so many people I approached. Now that we’re up and running, the major issue I face today is how to keep the house going,” she said.
“That is a major job for me, but when I look around at what we’ve accomplished, I think it’s wonderful. The men here have made remarkable progress in recapturing their productive lives. Today, they seem happy and healthy, and I am thrilled with the progress we’ve made.”
My Place Germantown is the only permanent housing for men with special needs in the city. To make donations or to volunteer, call 215-763-6387. Reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, a publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.