Project HOME, an organization predominantly known for its work with homeless people, is officially opening a new community health center in north Philadelphia today.

For Monica Medina McCurdy, vice president of health care services at project HOME, the center is long overdue in a community struggling with high rates of cancer, obesity and heart disease. More than one third of residents live below the poverty level. The neighborhood, which spans Fairmount Park to Broad Street between Girard and Allegheny also has the lowest life expectancy in the city.

"There's lots of health disparities affecting our neighborhood, so there's something missing if we're in the shadow of five world renounced international academic medical centers and yet the community is the way it is," she said. "So what's missing? I think it's that closeness, that trust, that reducing barriers that we're trying to address."

A preview

McCurdy and other leaders get excited walking through the 28,000 square foot space in preparation for the official launch (the center is already seeing patients on a limited basis). Cleaners give the floor-to-ceiling windows a final wash.  The center is a lot bigger than Project HOME's old space in a nearby church.

"We went from 4 medical exam rooms at the old building to 15. Yeah." said McCurdy, laughing.

The center, she adds, is also not your regular doctor's office. She points to areas reserved for dental care, mental health services, diabetes management classes and childcare. There's an emergency food pantry, even an adjacent YMCA gym.

But her favorite spot?

A handicapped accessible bathroom that has a shower, as well as a washer and dryer open to residents.

"You're really helping someone in a tangible way to alleviate their suffering for the day," she says.

Nearly a decade in the works, the Stephen Klein Wellness Center cost $19.4 million. It uses a mix of public and private funds. Thomas Jefferson University and its Department of Family and Community Medicine are partners.

McCurdy says receiving a designation as a federally qualified health center two years ago finally pushed the project forward. Project HOME is the social services nonprofit founded by Sister Mary Scullion.

Neighbors weigh in

Across the street on Cecil B. Moore, Gwendolyn Woods and Sharmain Gregory wait for the bus. Both live nearby. Both are glad to see the center open.

"I think it's nice to be in the neighborhood," said Gregory, who sees a lot of kids and seniors using the facility already.

"I think it's all for physical fitness and peace of mind, you know?" Woods added.

Gregory gets health care elsewhere, but she thinks the center will make a big difference. It already has for her, making it easier for to start exercising.

"Yeah cause I just started going to the gym since this came here," she said.

The center hopes to serve more than 3,000 residents a year.