There Gene Epstein goes again, being selfish. An extremely wealthy man surrounded by the very best of life: A loving wife; a wonderful home; expensive cars; his means forever granting his desires. The world at his fingertips.
Selfish time has arrived once more at the Epsteins’. He surveys the wants and needs of others around him. He sees the homelessness and drug addictions of those for whom tomorrow brings little more than another day of agony and hopelessness. His 83-year-old heart aches. He takes his feelings to wife Marlene; she nods approvingly. He reaches into his fortune and his soul. To make life a little bit better for those who need help most.
“I feel so good helping other people,” said Epstein. “I don’t know if it actually makes me feel better than the people I’m helping. It just makes me feel so good inside. I guess I’m selfish.”
Epstein’s selfishness hits HOME
It will be known as the Gene and Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund Street Medicine Program. The title honor bestowed after the Epsteins’ recent $350,000 contribution to support capital expenditures associated with Project HOME’s long-term recovery residence on Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia’s Kensington section, a nationally recognized epicenter of opioid addiction, homelessness, and poverty. The neighborhood, which numbers 80 open-air drug corners, is considered the largest outdoor narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast.
“This donation was important for Marlene and me to give,” Epstein said. “I’m lucky that I don’t have relatives who are addicted. But addiction is a reality. It’s around us. It’s here. And where do those people go to get help if we don’t help them?
“Kensington is a hot spot; people see it in the news, with them shooting up on the street. If I can give them a little help, just help with emergency services or whatever, maybe they can be saved.”
Project HOME’s stated mission is to empower adults, children, and families to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty and drug addiction. HOME is an acronym for Housing, Opportunity, Medical, and Employment. Epstein’s commitment to that effort has hit home for those in the organization.
“Gene has been a long-time supporter of Project HOME,” said Annette Jeffrey, vice president of development and communications. “Gene has seen how we focus on issues in Kensington. His donation helps us address what is central to our mission of ending homelessness and substance abuse disorders.
“We have a new residence building now, a place for people to come off the street and recover. Out of that building is a street medicine program that combines outreach and street medicine together. We have a 24/7 street outreach for homelessness. We have nurses that go out with them. Some people with opioid problems often don’t want to go to a facility. So, our nurses go out and do wound care, COVID treatment, prenatal, and all kinds of medical care. The Epsteins’ gift will support this work.”
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A teaching moment
It was the early 1980s, and Gene Epstein and his good fortune was feeling selfish again. He was reading more and more about homelessness, particularly in sections of Philadelphia, where he grew up. He looked around his bountiful kitchen table in Huntington Valley and was overcome with gratitude for his supportive wife, two healthy children, food on the table, happiness. It became, for him, an opportunity for a teaching moment for their children.
“It was important for me to teach the kids about the difference people have from us, who live a privileged life,” Epstein said. “I got in touch with a manufacturer of Western outerwear, full waxed-coated coats like they wear in winter in Montana. They were 75 bucks each at the time. I bought a bunch of them, gloves, and socks. I dressed up as Santa, and Marlene and I threw them in my Dodge pickup truck and we drove to Race and Vine streets in Philly.”
What Santa Gene witnessed stunned and saddened him. Homeless folks were lined up along the sidewalk, living in cardboard boxes.
“I thought, We live in such a rich country, so how can this be?” Epstein said.
As Epstein approached the sidewalk to hand out the winter apparel, he was met with resistance by several of the homeless people dealing with mental disorders and drug and alcohol addiction.
“We handed out everything we could, this after being told by many of them to get out of there,” Epstein recalled. “Then I was approached by a cop who told me that if I was interested in helping those people, he could put me in touch with somebody.”
That somebody was Sister Mary Scullion, who in 1989 founded Project HOME in her native city, and who has been working on behalf of the homeless since she joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1976. That initial meeting between Epstein and Sister Scullion, who in 2009 was named among Time magazine’s most influential people in the world, has endured for decades.
“I’ve gone and talked to the people we’ve helped at Project HOME,” Epstein said. “They’ve told me their life has changed. But that’s not because of me; it’s because of Sister Mary. I’m just in the background. What Sister Mary has done for those people is an absolute blessing. We’re just happy to help.”
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Caring is what drives him
Epstein is asked how much money has donated to Project HOME over the decades. While disclosing the $350,000 is not the largest gift bestowed upon the organization, modesty prevented him from revealing the total amount.
“All I can tell you is I’ve funded a lot of HOME’s programs from selling my collector cars,” Epstein said. “I would look at the Mercedes limo I had that used to belong to Roy Orbison, and the car that Elvis used to own. I thought about how I could keep them, but then thought about all the people hungry or addicted around me. I knew that selling those cars could help them.
“They were cars I would drive once in a blue moon. But how does that satisfy me more than selling them and helping out a particular organization like Project HOME, or the Bucks County Opportunity Council, or Bucks County Community College? The answer is, it doesn’t.”
More than two hours into our conversation, Epstein offered a saying he says he came up with 20 years ago: “Never worry you’re doing too much to help others.”
In other words, remain selfish.
Columnist Phil Gianficaro can be reached at 215-345-3078,[email protected], and @philgianficaro1 on Twitter