COMMUNITY • BY JULIE WIATT
How wide is the human heart? How elastic is the concept of home?
Over the past 30 years Sharon and Bill Murphy answered these questions in their own way; opening their hearts and their home to more than 400 families.
Sharon is the project director, and Bill is the grant writer and construction advisor of their nonprofit, Mary House, a community-based program that provides housing and services to the homeless. The Murphys began Mary House in their own home in Northeast D.C. Now they own 14 properties.
“When we started, we had space for up to three families in our home. Today we have space for 50-plus families, just in the housing component,” said Sharon.
Many of the families are political refugees, such as the multigenerational Iraqi family now living in the main part of the original Mary House. They graciously served us dark sweet tea and aromatic pastries when we visited. A Central American mother and child live in the small basement apartment.
About 13 countries are currently represented, including families from Central and South America, Ethiopia and Bosnia. Typically, families stay two to four years. The first year, the program aims to meet the immediate school and health needs of the children and the parents; the second year, they work on “now what?” — developing plans for education and jobs for the parents.
The families sign rental contracts, though at first the housing may be free, and the rent stays quite low. Families also pay their utilities as soon as they can, which Sharon says is important for them to build a credit history.
The organization also runs an afterschool program at the Mary House education Center on Sargent Avenue in Brookland, where they also run summer camps, parent workshops and an English club. In the same building is the program office — “Me,” says Sharon. All support services are open to everyone. Only about half the kids live at Mary House. It’s often a feeder program for housing.
As the name Mary House may suggest, faith plays a large part in motivating the compassion Sharon and Bill share. But they do not share a religious tradition: Bill is Catholic and Sharon is Jewish. And, as Sharon points out, “Three major religions honor Mary.”
There is also a personal reason for the name. While pregnant with their daughter Caitlin, Sharon’s wish was to give birth at home in Maine with a midwife. Weeks overdue, she prayed to God but then thought that there must be women praying just to survive childbirth. So, for her smaller wish, she prayed to Mary. That night her contractions began. She and Bill decided to name their next project Mary.
Her labor was long, and Bill had time to chat with the midwife’s husband, an attorney who set up nonprofits and who encouraged Bill and Sharon’s dream of working with the homeless. Later on, activist Coleman McCarthy did the same, convincing Bill that his Jesuit education and a background in real estate would help them survive.
They started by borrowing $2000 from Bill’s parents. Their struggles were many, as Sharon admits with a smile, but they persevered, and, she says, they have no regrets.
They do, however, have a new home. About six months ago they moved from the original Mary House in the District to a house in Takoma Park that for the first time in three decades they are not sharing with strangers.
It is a short walk from Capital City Cheesecake, the café bakery owned by their daughters Caitlin and Meaghan. Three generations of the family now live in the Takoma Park home. Sharon says, “We are very happy here. Now this feels like home.”
Bill Braun contributed to this article.