Sister Patsy with her team, celebrating 25 years at Mercy Housing

How Does Sister Patsy Make Mercy Real? By Having “Nerves of Steel and Skin of a Rhino”

As a social worker who has helped people with low incomes in the San Francisco area for more than 25 years, Sister Patsy Harney has a lot of stories to tell.

Sister Patsy with her team, celebrating 25 years at Mercy Housing
Sister Patsy (second to the left) with her team, celebrating 25 years at Mercy Housing

Known for introducing computers into many low income communities in 1999, Sister Patsy is widely referred to as the “Cyber Nun.” As a Resident Services Coordinator for Mercy Housing, an affordable housing nonprofit founded by the Sisters of Mercy, she runs an afterschool program, a small community center, and a computer center in Visitacion Valley, a neighborhood known for its high rates of gang activity, poverty, and violence.

Sister Patsy, who, with a warm chuckle, describes herself as having “nerves of steel and skin of a rhino,” organizes seasonal activities for the residents. In partnership with other local service providers, she also connects them to resources that can help them file their taxes, find jobs, and much more.

In honor of the Year of Mercy, we sat down with Sister Patsy and asked her about her work and how she makes mercy real in her community.

Can you tell me about a time you felt inspired by your work?

A few weeks ago, I organized a tour of Mission Creek, one of our communities in San Francisco. There were Mercy Associates, people who want to be involved in the work of the Sisters of Mercy, and a group of students from Mercy High School in Burlingame. I had given a talk to the Associates, which really inspires me, because every time I give a talk, people are blown away and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard of the work you’re doing! This is amazing!” So they had been wanting to see a Mercy Housing property. And the kids, they came to San Francisco for a kind of weekend experience, working with the poor in the city.

Mercy Housing resident, David, sharing his artwork with visitors
Mercy Housing resident, David, sharing his artwork with visitors

So in come the high school students on the train from Burlingame in the peninsula. We, the Associates and I, met up with them, and we had lunch on the patio of Mission Creek. It was one of those very beautiful San Francisco days, the sun was shining, it was fabulous, and we were sitting under those umbrellas on the terrace. I wasn’t even sure the kids knew that it was housing for the poor. Of course the older folk were amazed that it was such a fabulous building.

The first stop on our tour was a visit to David, a resident. Years ago, David had heart surgery, lost his job when he was recuperating, couldn’t pay his rent, and ended up on the street. He was homeless for seven or eight years. His doctor told him that he wouldn’t survive another winter on the streets. He moved into Mission Creek in 2006, and, as he says, it saved his life.

Today, he’s an artist, and he’s really good! He marbleizes paper. He creates these wonderful designs on white sheets of paper, through this special process. He has a little art studio set up, and all of us went there. The high school girls were kneeling on the floor around him, and every time he poured paint onto the paper, they were absolutely delighted. Every time he’d drop a new color on or change the design, they’d go, “Wow!” He uses he paper to make boxes or covers for journals.

Afterward, an Associate told me, “Imagine all the talented people that are out there on the street, who could be creating things, who could be beautiful artists.”

The feeling in that room was inspirational. I was very proud to feel a part of Mercy Housing. I was proud to let people know about the work we do and how important it is.

When do you feel most discouraged?

I get discouraged when we can’t find the resources we need, or when it takes a really long time to get those needed resources.

I also get discouraged by violence. When violence happens, it sets you back. Because you think…you’re going along, and you think things are improving, and then some kind of violence happens and it’s discouraging because you think, “What more could I do? It’s so senseless. We were going forward and now it feels like we’re slipping backwards.” Those are the discouraging moments.

What helps you get through those days?

We get a lot of support from the other providers in the neighborhood. I work really closely with the Crisis Response Team from the Department of Public Health. Mercy Housing is very attentive, asking, “What can we do? How can we help? What do you need?” You ask yourself what more you could have done, or if you could have done anything differently. Other than that, you pick yourself up and you keep going.

All the service providers working together have been making an inroad, and I think that has helped decrease the violence, but there’s still a lot of turf issues.

What does the principle of mercy mean to you?

To me, mercy means reaching out to those in need, regardless of who they are or where they are or what kind of response you

might get. It means reaching beyond your comfort zone, regardless of whether you’re going to be thanked, regardless of whether others think the people you’re helping deserve assistance.

People on the outside often say, “Homeless people aren’t deserving, they don’t want to come inside, so why should we help them?” They say, “There are plenty of places for the homeless to get food or assistance.” They might not know that in neighborhoods like Visitation Valley, poverty is endemic. They may not know that neighborhoods like Visitation Valley have a lot of needs. The people living there need grocery stores. They need jobs. They need ESL classes. They need better housing.

How do you make mercy real?

Through my daily work. Sometimes making mercy real is educating others about the plight of the poor in San Francisco, like we did on that tour of Mission Creek. The other day, I was at the food bank, and I was picking up frozen chickens at the food bank, and I thought, “Here I am, making mercy real.”

However you make mercy real, you can’t do it for the gratitude. If you’re doing the work of mercy for the gratitude, you’re in the wrong business, because a lot of the time, you don’t get gratitude, or you don’t get it in the way you expect it. You should be in the business for the doing of it. If you do get gratitude, you rejoice.

Sister Patsy in her habit, Mercy Housing
Sister Patsy in her habit