For a woman of such a tiny stature, one would not think that Mary Ellen Graham could pack so much power. But when there is fortitude and heart behind what was once considered a simple dream, size does not matter.
Back in 2007, Graham was introduced to a growing problem in Germantown. While working at St. Vincent’s Health Provisions Center, she saw fairly large numbers of men around the ages of 40 through 55 who were disabled with no place to call home. Since no one else was doing anything to address the issue, she decided to take charge and do it herself.
After intense planning and enough perseverance, Graham opened My Place Germantown. Located at 209 E. Price St., My Place Germantown is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to reduce homelessness in the Germantown section of Philadelphia by providing permanent supportive housing for homeless males with strong ties to the area. Now, thanks to Graham, 12 men have somewhere they can call their own.
What started out as a simple idea, quickly turned into a project that took a while to get off the ground. First, she had to form a not-for-profit corporation, and then she had to find a partner, apply for funding, find a building and then renovate it so it was suitable for its disabled residents, and lastly pursue zoning authority. All of those steps took time – 3 years worth of her time.
Regardless of all the headaches and struggles she encountered, she remembers the opening ceremony as being absolutely beautiful. One day in November of 2010, they dedicated the building, invited the leaders of the city, the neighbors and the founding folks to come and see the progress they had made and admire the work they had done.
Graham wanted the best she could produce for her new residents. Everything that outfitted the apartments was new and it suddenly became a hugely cooperative effort with one friend making curtains, another making sure there was a Christmas tree that first holiday. Suddenly there was an army of people doing small but essential things to make the men feel comfortable and at home.
“And that was a source of satisfaction for me, that down to every detail, towels in the bathroom, cutlery in the kitchen, pots and pans, dishes, they had absolutely everything that we thought they would need. I wanted the very very best we could produce, for guys who rarely had the very best offered to them,” Graham said.
What is unique about this effort is that the organization is placed in a residential neighborhood. Graham felt that it was very important to give men the opportunity to stay in Germantown, because they have roots there. Just because their housing was unstable, she didn’t believe they needed to be dislocated. She wanted to provide something suitable for them within their own environment and neighborhood. By becoming integrated with the residents of the neighborhood, these men are now handed a great sense of community.
Graham considers this her greatest success story. Initially the residents of the neighborhood had a perception of who would be living in the facility and they were concerned about the suitability.
“The neighborhood community has become very attached to our residents. They have come and given our guys surprise birthday parties, they are concerned if some of them are struggling. But it’s a real lesson in the concerns, the anxiety based on the unknown. When the known comes into play, the anxiety washes away. Sometimes I find it hard to believe it has happened,” Graham said.
Rose Pruett is a resident in the neighborhood, and is a retired employee from the Philadelphia School District who finds herself attending many of the events that happen at My Place Germantown.
“I am just happy that the building is being used in such a wonderful way,” Pruett said.
A sense of community was not only produced within the residential area but also in the building itself. These men live together and have become friends, thanks to the recreational activities that sometimes are produced organically. For example, every Sunday morning at the crack of dawn, the men get up and find their way downstairs, make coffee, and discuss politics.
This has really helped Michael Mailey, a resident in the building.
“My Place Germantown is a perfect way for me to do better, it provides a great environment for me to be in.” Mailey said.
Graham did not just create a home for twelve men. She provided them with a level of dignity, respect and care. Instead of people judging them, there is acceptance.
“Just physically being able to look out the window and see trees, to have this kind of sunlight, this is a rarity for some of our guys. My Place Germantown has opened a new world for a number of them,” Graham said.