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By Karie Simmons, Inquirer Staff Writer

Three years ago, David Kopena was living on the streets in Philadelphia. Now he walks the blocks he once called home, photographing the city's buildings and architecture with a digital camera.

Kopena, 64, lost his apartment when he was laid off from his job of 10 years at Notations, a wholesale women's clothing store. Homeless for nine months, he was living in and out of shelters until a caseworker recommended that he contact Bethesda Project, a nonprofit that aids and houses the city's homeless. That's when Kopena's life changed.

Bethesda [partnering with Optical Realities Photography] "started a photography class that has been one of the best things they ever decided to do," he said. "It's turned my whole outlook around and taught me to have a better, different attitude on life. It's just fun."Kopena now lives in permanent single-room housing for men at Bethesda Bainbridge on South 15th Street, one of 15 locations Bethesda Project operates across Center City. Residents pay small portions of rent, but all other costs are paid for through donations and fund-raising. Bethesda Project's 16th annual gala and auction will take place at the Diamond Club at Citizens Bank Park at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

It's been nearly 34 years but Bethesda Project founder and executive director the Rev. Domenic Rossi still recalls when the organization first began helping the homeless in 1979, housing women in a rented apartment at 12th and Sansom Streets.

Rossi, 64, and members of his prayer group from Daylesford Abbey in Paoli rented the building from Mercy Hospice to house homeless women in Center City. He said the group's desire to help overcame the fact that its members had no idea what they were doing.

"We were all amateurs," Rossi acknowledged. "But we thought, 'What if this was my sister or my aunt or my grandmother?' "

Bethesda seeks out men and women most difficult to house due to trust issues, substance abuse, addiction, or mental illness and provides permanent housing and programs to help them stabilize. Bethesda, which serves more than 2,000 people each year, creates a supportive relationship similar to a family. Volunteers make sure clients go to doctor appointments and take their medications.

"We go after the person who has nobody else, whoever is all alone," Rossi said.

Although most are happy to call Bethesda their home, some are reluctant to accept services or do not want others to know they are receiving help. Rossi, wanting to provide housing for these residents, turned an emergency shelter on South 15th Street into a "safe haven" for 20 men. He called it My Brother's House.

"We didn't want people to feel embarrassed about where they were staying," he said. "So when people asked, 'Oh, where are you staying?', they could say, 'Oh, at my brother's house.' "

Rossi's desire to help Philadelphia's homeless comes from a belief that God cries out when people are abandoned in society. Rossi said he was inspired by the people he helps, recalling one cold winter night in 1984 in particular.

At the time, Bethesda was operating two emergency shelters, at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ on Fourth and Race Streets and in a room in the basement of an unused school in Fishtown, which provided men with food, clothing, a shower, and a place to sleep. Volunteers picked up the men in vans and drove them to the shelters.

Rossi said one night, when the last van was leaving to take the men to the shelter, one man, Bobby, started pounding on the side of the van from within and yelling for the driver to stop. The driver looked outside and saw a man running to catch the van wearing only a T-shirt and pants - no socks, shoes or coat. Bobby threw open the door, took off his coat, socks, and sneakers, and gave them to the man. Rossi was shocked.

"Witnessing the compassion of a homeless person to a total stranger, that's inspiring," he said. "I guess I have more than one coat, more than one pair of shoes, but I can't say that in that situation that I would have done that."

Addictions and mental illness typically prevent homeless men and women from holding a job, something Bethesda volunteer Michelle Howard realized after she retired and began helping the homeless 14 years ago.

"They're not just people who just don't want to work," she said.

Howard, 65, visits Bethesda Bainbridge each week to have lunch and play bingo with residents like Kopena. Other days she is delivering casseroles, sheets, clothing, and toiletries to the other Bethesda sites.

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Through the Lens of Justice:

By Ryan McLaughlin

Photo course works alongside Philly’s homeless population Ryan McLaughlin Staff Writer “Photography for Social Change,” a class offered by the communication department, goes above and beyond the expected norm with life-changing experiences for the students and those they work with.

“The ‘homeless’ are no longer nameless ‘drunks, drug addicts and bums,’ as many would choose to label them; they are Bill, David, Rayford, Michael, Phil and Jordon. They are educated and compassionate, talented and funny,” Linda Panetta, the course’s instructor, said. “Sure, they are struggling; some emotionally crippled by the loss of their wife or mother, others by mental illness, but they are also desperately trying to turn their lives around.”

Working with Bethesda Project, a shelter in the lower north section of Philadelphia that provides a temporary home for around 200 men, Panetta and her students offered homeless shelter residents a photography class as part of a healing arts project.  

Every Thursday, the class travels to Philadelphia to work collaboratively with the homeless.

Although photography is the major focus of the course, social change is what defines it. Negative stigmas following homeless people only weigh them down even further. A goal of this class is to break those negative perceptions and stereotypes.

“It’s easy to look the other way or feel judgmental when we see a homeless person on the streets,” Panetta said. “Stereotypes sway our thoughts and cloud our judgment. But, for those in this class, those typecasts have been shattered.”

Panetta became passionate towards helping those in need during her years as a student here at Cabrini. She told a story of her driving through Philadelphia on the way to her mother’s house and getting lost. While trying to find her way she spotted a homeless man lying on a bench. Panetta pulled the car to the side of the road and offered the man her sandwich. The man hadn’t eaten in days and upon being handed the sandwich was moved to tears by Panetta’s generosity.

The class started out as just that: a class. As time went by, however, the residents weren’t the only ones learning.As a member of the class my perception of the homeless completely changed. Week after week, as trust and relationships grew, many of the residents began to shed light into their lives and how they ended up in the situations they are in.

Every one of their stories was different and yet society tends to look at them all the same. Each person participating in the photography class had a goal or dream they wanted to achieve in their lifetime.

“The class made me realize how lucky I am and opened my eyes,” Christina Spadavecchia, senior communications major, said. “It made me thankful for what I have.”

Upon starting the course, students were asked to watch “The Soloist” by Joe Wright. The film is based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers was attending Julliard, the institute of musical art, when he developed schizophrenia. Unable to cope or manage his mental illness, he wound up on the streets.

The students of Photography for Social Change quickly made the connection from residents of the Bethesda Project to “The Soloist.” Students learned about many residents that held college degrees or were former small business owners.

This course offers something nearly unattainable anywhere else: a completely life-changing experience that could never be found in a traditional classroom. Fast Facts about Bethesda: • It’s different from any other homeless shelter, treating its residents as family. • It strives in helping individuals reach personal goals. • Residents pay rent and participate in chores. • Bethesda operates in 15 different locations. • They love volunteers!