Joseph Hill-Coles was born to a drug-addicted mother in Philadelphia and entered the foster-care system at the age of 3. Although he was adopted by a single mother when he was 10, he said he was an angry kid. He got kicked out of several schools before being arrested at 17.
“When I got out, it was all about survival,” Hill-Coles said. “I house-hopped until I wore out my welcome.”
He shared his struggles of living on the streets and sleeping in Love Park with nearly 100 people gathered May 4 in Chinatown for the opening of Francis House of Peace, an affordable-housing complex for formerly homeless and low-income people at 810 Arch St. The nine-story building, named for Pope Francis, has retail space and 94 units. Six are dedicated to LGBT residents and three of them are still available.
Project HOME spearheaded the building in collaboration with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and the Middleton Partnership. It’s the first LGBT-friendly space that Project HOME and Middleton Partnership have developed in their five years working together.
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, has committed to more LGBT units in her organization’s next project, said Mel Heifetz, an LGBT advocate who has participated in development meetings with Scullion.
“She welcomes GLBT folks and has been very supportive over the years,” he said, noting Scullion also collaborates with the Mazzoni Center and The Attic Youth Center.
Heifetz was in the audience at the Francis House of Peace opening, as was Anne Fadullon, the out head of the new Planning and Development Cabinet.
Hill-Coles told the audience he turned his life around with the help of Covenant House shelter in Germantown. Now 22, he works for Urban Tree Connection, plans to start Community College in the fall and moved into his own apartment in Francis House of Peace in March.
“My journey was long and hard, but there were little lights along the way,” he said. “I want to be one of those lights for someone else.”
Hill-Coles is not a member of the LGBT community, but considers himself an ally. He lives next-door to an LGBT resident and said the inclusive atmosphere of the Francis House of Peace makes it a good place for people to focus on employment goals and other life skills.
“That is a story that should be told time and again so people understand the needs we have here,” said Mark Squilla, Philadelphia City Councilman for the First District, including the Gayborhood and Chinatown. “The administration is taking that to a new level and hoping to come up with a policy to really bring the hammer down on this.”
Squilla said people are becoming homeless younger, and often they are members of the LGBT community.
Forty percent of homeless youth in Philadelphia identify as LGBT, according to last year’s count by Valley Youth House, which helps kids in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia with stable housing and life skills.
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority owns the property where Francis House of Peace stands. It provided financial support to construct the building, along with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the Middleton Initiative and the Affordable Housing Program.