Mary Scullion: While in Philly for convention, get to know the poor

Mary Scullion

is cofounder and executive director of Project HOME

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The Democratic National Convention will be held in a city with a 26 percent poverty rate.

When thousands of politicos, media, and other visitors descend on Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, they will be coming to a city that gave birth to the American vision of a society boldly rooted in freedom, a city with a rich and powerful history of struggle for social transformation and the fulfillment of our national project of liberty and justice for all.

But they are also coming to a city with a staggering 26 percent poverty rate - and half of those Philadelphians live in deep poverty, below the poverty line. (The official federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,300.) Almost one of every three children in Philadelphia experiences poverty - which indicates how far we are from fulfilling that bold social vision.

Visitors may not see the usual large numbers of people who are homeless in Center City, due to intensified outreach efforts. (In recent weeks, many of the folks on the streets who had been displaced by construction on LOVE Park and the Parkway were sleeping in the shadow of the Convention Center.) Even if some of those people will relocate for security reasons, Mayor Kenney has insisted that this is not an effort to hide the city's homeless crisis, and he stresses that he in fact hopes to enlist party leaders in local efforts to develop solutions.

Meanwhile, just a few short miles from the glitter and gleam of Center City and the convention spots are communities struggling with crumbling infrastructures and living under the constant threat of violence. Children are trapped in failing schools that suffocate prospects for stable futures.

No doubt the four days of the convention will be marked by soaring rhetoric and stirring sentiments. Great promises will be made, and much hope will be kindled among the faithful for national renewal.

But will anything of the lofty speechmaking and party platforms from inside the convention halls truly address the wrenching struggles of poor, hungry, and homeless Americans, in Philadelphia and throughout the nation?

So far in this election year, the realities of poor Americans have barely registered a blip in the political discourse. Politicians of all stripes are making commitments to improve the lot of the middle class, which is certainly necessary.

In their draft platform, to be voted on at the convention, the Democratic Party "reaffirm[s] our commitment to eliminate poverty" and vows to "develop a national strategy to combat poverty, coordinated across all levels of government." (The Republican platform stresses the success of the 1996 welfare reform and urges more reform in benefits programs to "promote work.")

It is unconscionable - and ultimately dangerous - to ignore the plight and the aspirations of millions of our fellow citizens whose daily lives are marked by food insecurity, a struggle for survival, and increasing alienation from the American dream. Even the troubling acts of racial violence in recent weeks are largely rooted in economic violence - it is distressingly obvious how much urban poverty disproportionately impacts communities of color.

We have a message for the Democrats when they are in town (and we would say the same to Republicans in Cleveland):

We urge you to take a break from the many gatherings between convention business and engage in real encounters and conversations with people experiencing poverty and homelessness.

Listen to stories of struggle from citizens who may be absent from our national political discourse but who have much to offer if we can create public policies that really expand resources and opportunities to break the grip of poverty.

Learn the harsh truths of what happens in lives and communities abandoned by our elected officials and decision-makers - but also see the kinds of personal and social transformations that are possible when we have the political will.

We urge you, as you continue to address the middle class, to also make concrete commitments to aggressively confront the poverty that affects millions of your fellow Americans.

And we urge you to work for a national debate between the major-party candidates focused specifically on poverty and how we as a nation can address it.

Millions of Americans are looking to you for truthfulness and real leadership.

Join Sister Mary Scullion for a special dialogue on poverty and homelessness at 2 p.m. July 26 at the Parkway Branch of the Free Library. People who have experienced poverty and homelessness will share their stories and discuss their election-year concerns. For more information, visit www.projecthome.org/election.

MaryScullion@projecthome.org