Photo via Project HOME website
For 25 years, Project HOME has operated with a singular mission in Philadelphia: break the circle of events that lead people into homelessness.
As a result, much of the focus for the nonprofit’s work centers around getting people off the streets and into homes. Project HOME has 550 units of permanent housing in the city as well as “safe haven” transitional housing for those just exiting homelessness. Over the next two years, the nonprofit plans to nearly double its capacity of permanent housing, according to Scarlett McCahill, social enterprise manager at Project HOME.
But Project HOME’s work centers on more than housing — medical and psychiatric care plays a role, as do educational services. But creating opportunities for employment—that’s what the “O”stands for—is where McCahill’s spends her attention.
“The work we do can be viewed as an incubator,” she says. “We operate five small businesses in house with the design to take our residents who have gaps in their employability—skills gaps, gaps in confidence, other soft skills—and train them to offer them experience in a supportive employment model.”
Two of these businesses, a retail thrift store known as the HOME Spun Resale Boutique and a line of gift products called HOME Made, have made strides in the past year alone. Along with Project HOME’s other businesses, they not only provide jobs and income for residents of Project HOME’s housing, but also make money that goes back into the work the nonprofit does to bring Philadelphians out of homelessness.
“None of our businesses are making boatloads of cash,” says McCahill. “But in the times when the businesses do break even and make profit, that goes into building out the employment opportunities. The priority is generating income for residents. The two are complementary.”
The HOME Spun storefront on Fairmount Avenue has actually been around in some version since 1992, first as a stipend program for Project HOME residents. The storefront was then as a per-hour means of employment — which is what it is today. The boutique as it exists now has been around for about one year and employs four people: two residents, one teenager recruited through the nonprofit’s educational services programs, and Project HOME employee and store manager Jenna Bryant. Most of the items sold have been donated, gently used men’s and women’s clothing.
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“We hope to be able to offer affordable clothing to folks who are looking for an interview outfit or just an extra pair of pants,” Bryant says. “Mostly we cater to the general consumers and the regular consumers who are walking by our store.”
For that reason, HOME Spun also carries the HOME Made products residents create. These products are small items—candles, soaps, pieces of art—that residents produce out of the Project HOME headquarters on Fairmount Avenue.
Introductory lessons in the workshops run twice a week for residents to learn, for example, how to melt wax in a double boiler and add the appropriate ratio of scents and dyes to make candles. Once residents are comfortable with the equipment, they can schedule workshop time on an as-needed basis.
“[HOME Made] has the lowest barrier to entry for residents who would want to earn income,” says McCahill. “This is a great way for our folks who may not be ready for work that’s permanent employment. Imagine a person who has suffered significant trauma, or a person who has very recently come off the streets into a stabilization unit like our safe haven spaces. They might have zero income.”
Since 2013, the first year of HOME Made program, the number of residents making products has increased from 27 to 49. And while residents sell their wares piecemeal — which averages out to roughly a job that pays $10 an hour — HOME Made is a way for people to build their confidence up until they’re ready to tackle the city’s job market.
Some residents will go from HOME Made to temporary, two-month work in Project HOME’s commercial kitchen, where they’ll leave with relevant and recent work history and a professional reference. Others might continue to make candles while they apply for work.
“HOME Made sees a good deal of turnover in the best way possible,” McCahill says. “It’s great to me when people say, ‘Scarlett I can do more.’ ”
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