A recent report stated that 600 homeless children live in the District's shelter for homeless families at D.C. General Hospital in Southeast. The number adds to the more than 1,800 homeless children in the city, according to statistics provided by a District nonprofit, which provides legal representation to low- and no-income clients.
One-third of District residents are illiterate and white wealth compared to black wealth is at a ratio of 20 to 1, said philanthropist Paul McElligott.
Abysmal numbers like these led McElligott to leave a law career in 1983 to become executive director of a community development corporation – the North Capitol Neighborhood Development – in Northwest, where he worked to protect homeownership during redevelopment of the area.
"I hate poverty in the richest country in the world, and I hate it's the highest rate in 30 years," said McElligott, 75, who, after 14 years heading the development corporation, became executive director of the Perry School Community Services Center in Northwest. In October, he retired from the Perry Center after 15 years, but will continue to serve as a senior advisor.
McElligott addressed an audience paying tribute to his service to the poor on Feb. 19 at the historic Howard Theatre in Northwest.
"This is a wonderful evening for me, it's something I won't ever forget," McElligott said.
A long list of well-wishers crossed Howard's stage to reminisce about the ways McElligott made an impact. Mayor Vincent Gray joined Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells and interim At-Large Council member Anita Bonds in a "Tribute to Paul McElligott" in recognition of his 30 years of service to the North Capitol Street corridor, also called the Northwest One neighborhood.
"This stage is where many great performers have been, including James Brown, the hardest working man in show business," said Gray, 70, who issued a proclamation declaring Feb. 19 as Paul McElligott Day. "Isn't it fitting we're here to celebrate the hardest working man in the District. His work around poverty and the Perry Center is the fulfillment of a dream."
Bonds, who referred to McElligott as "my friend," said "whatever he's doing, he does it with compassion." She worked with the Perry Center, a nonprofit that uses holistic and integrative approaches to social services, economic empowerment and youth development – strategies to alleviate poverty that lead to positive outcomes. Its mission is to provide a model of community transformation for the future.
Opened in 1997, the Perry Center was the brainchild of McElligott, Sister Diane Roach from the Northwest One parish, and Alverta Munlyn, an advocate for, and former resident of Sursum Corda, a cooperative housing complex bounded by K and M Streets between North Capitol and First Streets. They focused on revitalizing a blighted community, and set their sights on a boarded-up building at the corner of M Street and New York Avenue. For the next decade, the community and the Perry Center tracked down $6.8 million in funding, development partners and political supporters.
"I've never met anyone like Paul and I'm not an easy person," said Munlyn, the co-founder. "He said, 'it's the parents we need to educate too,' and he helped them become homeowners. You've given me so much hope and you've helped all our dreams come true. There'll never be another Paul."
Emceed by WUSATV9 anchor JC Hayward, the tribute featured speakers from multiple backgrounds. Besides council members and advisory neighborhood commissioners, nonprofits like Bright Beginnings, the Father McKenna Center, a homeless shelter and businesses like The Robert Bobb Group joined the parade of supporters who acknowledged McElligott for helping change lives; or for being the catalyst and visionary who helped to change entire communities.
Born in Fitchburg, Mass., McElligott attended Georgetown University Law Center. He became a partner at Ragan & Mason, a corporate and administrative law firm in D.C., and enjoyed a 20-year career.
He chaired a social concerns committee at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown where he found mentors who led him to the North Capitol Street area. He assisted in parish outreach at St. Aloysius Church and developed volunteer opportunities beyond the soup kitchen. That's where, he found his calling.
"My legacy is begging," said McElligott who's raised $20 million in grants and private funds for the Perry Center. "This award is for others. The real legacy is the young person who struggled to become the first in his family to go to college; the ex-offender who's earning a GED and staying out of crime; and the homeless parent who works to get a house for herself and her kids."