Bethesda Project founder returns as director

The Rev. Domenic Rossi and Angelo Sgro outside Bethesda Spruce Street. Rossi founded the Bethesda Project in 1979 and left in 1991. He'll replace Sgro, retiring after 10 years, as director.
The Rev. Domenic Rossi and Angelo Sgro outside Bethesda Spruce Street. Rossi founded the Bethesda Project in 1979 and left in 1991. He'll replace Sgro, retiring after 10 years, as director.
Posted: June 18, 2010

The Rev. Domenic Rossi is a big believer in celestial messages.

Like the time in 1977, when a dozen people gathered with him at the Daylesford Abbey in Paoli for a weekly prayer group. Pulling out their Bibles, three of them randomly turned to the same passage: Isaiah, Chapter 58.

Its message: Forget your pious acts. If you really want to please the Lord, share your bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless.

"For three of us to open to the same passage?" asks Rossi, still incredulous after more than three decades.

Then came the disturbing dream about his deceased grandmother. She appeared in a dingy room, alone and staring blankly out the window. "Lord, are you trying to say something to me?" Rossi thought at the time.

The signs took him in a direction he hadn't expected.

Rossi went on to start the Bethesda Project, a onetime volunteer effort by the prayer group to help homeless men and women that grew into a $5 million, nonprofit agency - today one of the city's largest providers of services and housing for the homeless.

The 61-year-old Norbertine priest headed the group until 1991, when he transferred to a parish in New Mexico. He returned to the area in 1997 as pastor of St. Norbert Roman Catholic Church in Paoli and stayed involved with the Bethesda Project as a board member, but not as its hands-on director.

That changes this month. Rossi's life is coming full circle as he returns as executive director of the Bethesda Project, taking over from Angelo Sgro, 67, who is retiring after a decade.

"We were led to the city," Rossi said in an interview at Bethesda Bainbridge, a communal residence for formerly homeless men at 15th and Bainbridge Streets in South Philadelphia.

Rossi's work with the homeless started in 1979 with a call out of the blue from an acquaintance with an unusual request.

Sister Mary Klock, who ran a women's shelter in Center City for the Sisters of Mercy, needed volunteers to support eight formerly homeless women with mental illness who were moving to a group residence at 11th and Spruce Streets. They would need help with basics such as shopping, cleaning their rooms, taking their medications.

Would Rossi and his prayer group be interested in working with them?

Amid all his mystical signs, Rossi knew what he was called to do. The South Philadelphia native devoted the next 12 years to working with the homeless in Center City. He set up shelters in church basements. He converted rowhouses into low-rent, single-room residences with communal dining and living space. In 1988, he took a onetime auto dealership on North Broad Street and renovated it into single rooms for 49 homeless men and women, many with mental illness or addictions.

Three months ago, the board asked him to reapply for his old job.

"I had no clue this was coming," Rossi said.

Today, Bethesda Project employs 140 full-time and part-time employees, as well as 500 volunteers. About 60 percent of its budget comes from federal, state and city sources. The agency runs 10 residences for homeless men and women, and has contracts with the city to operate a men's shelter at Ninth and Hamilton Streets, plus two seasonal, drop-in centers for the homeless.

In the winter months, Bethesda Project shelters about one in four homeless men in Philadelphia.

Sgro said the environment that Rossi returns to is both similar and different from the one he left.

As before, an inordinate number of the people who are surviving on the streets of Philadelphia are struggling with mental illness as well as substance abuse. And finding long-term housing and treatment for them remains a constant struggle.

Just last month, the city canceled the Bethesda Project's contract to run a special drop-in "cafe" for 75 people at Eighth and Arch Streets. The site attracted many with severe mental health and addiction issues who, for whatever reasons, did not want to go into big city shelters.

The city's decision was less from a lack of funds than an effort to spur people to move out and seek help finding permanent housing.

"The city was absolutely correct," Sgro said. The cafe "was not meant to be a permanent residence."

But he added, "Another way to look at it is people are telling us something. This is the kind of place that is safe for them - physically and psychologically. So maybe we should meet them where they are, refine it, and allow it to happen."

Today, Sgro said, the city has far more professionally run agencies to help the homeless. And because of the prodding by early advocates such as Rossi, groups have more financial support from city, state, and federal sources.

Proof of how far Bethesda Project has come: In November, it will join another nonprofit, Project HOME, to unveil the $23 million, 79-unit Connelly House near 13th and Market Streets.

"We couldn't dream of a Connelly House in 1982," Sgro said.

Across Center City, Bethesda Project operates 142 units of permanent and transitional housing, charging a resident less than a third of his or her disability income for rent. The rest is covered by public funding and private donations.

Most of the places have communal living and dining, single rooms, and on-site caseworkers.

Rossi said when he takes over as executive director, he will apply an approach that served him before - to treat the homeless like family.

"Brothers and sisters suffering alone on the streets is unconscionable," he said. "What can we do? What can you do?"


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

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