Homeless people don’t own candles. First, you need a place of your own.

So there’s a quiet bliss that burbles among the formerly homeless folks who toil shoulder to shoulder in a tiny workshop to create small-batch, hand-poured, soy-wax candles at Project HOME, the nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood.

The urban artisans, who live in Project HOME housing, are currently in the business of preparing “HOME Warming” gift boxes that include their crafted candles, along with mugs and ceramic coasters featuring artwork made by residents.

Once, the candle makers were disconnected from the grid, bedding down in the weather on Philadelphia hardscape, their lives not so much lived as endured. Now, they’re housed capitalists in air-conditioning, their hands made busy by craft, so many of the fires in their lives extinguished.

“I like the idea that people will buy my candles,” said Linette Peden, 56, the victim of rough, frightening years on the streets “where men took advantage.” She added with pride, “I could say to people, ‘That’s what I made.’”

Project HOME pays participants by the candle, up to $10 a week. “It’s not really a job,” said Nic Watson, social enterprise director. “It’s an opportunity to engage with other members of the community and make a little money.”

Recently, Project HOME teamed up with Di Bruno Bros., purveyor of gourmet food products, to create a new version of the boxes that will be available for the holidays beginning in October. The revamped packages will include black lava cashews donated by Di Bruno and will be priced at $75, available at Project HOME and Di Bruno websites, along with Di Bruno stores and Project HOME’s Homespun Boutique in Fairmount.

All proceeds beyond payment to resident candle makers will go to Project HOME.

Wax comes to Project HOME in the form of white flakes. Workshop coordinator Kai Oceans, formerly homeless, places the flakes into a double boiler, creating liquid wax.

The other day, Peden poured the hot yellow liquid into four-ounce tins, careful not to disturb the wick she had inserted earlier. The fluid hardens in 24 hours. Candles sell for $8 apiece.

This particular style, called “Library,” smells of leather and old paper, Oceans said. Project HOME offers around nine other scents, including the playfully named “Scandalwood,” along with “When Life Gives You Lemons” and “A Candle by Any Other Name.”

To augment the tin candles, Project HOME is testing concrete candle vessels. “It’s very Philly,” said Samantha Kapenstein, social enterprise senior associate at Project HOME. “The concrete surrounding us is ugly, but the concrete candles are something beautiful.”

Concrete is all the rage in fashionable stores, said Oceans, added that the candle workshop has become a calm, healing place. Years ago, Oceans, 30, left the family home in Germantown, driven away by a churning chaos in close quarters.

“It was one big tornado of dysfunction,” Oceans recalled. “I had to get out.” Later came depression, which led to homelessness.

“Our people in the shop,” Oceans said, “are all recovering from something.”

For Peden, candlemaking is a respite from a life of mental illness that began after she was placed in foster care at age 5.

“I’ve had anxiety attacks and nervous breakdowns,” she said. “I lived on the streets. I was on the nice side, and men took advantage and raped me a lot.

“Philadelphia is scary, and you have to be alert out there to protect yourself. But I live in Project HOME, and things are better now. I’m not on the streets anymore. And candle making is fun and gives me something to do.”

The candle makers themselves love having the candles in their residences. The light softens the rooms, maybe even softens life just a little bit.

“You can’t have a candle,” Kapenstein said, “until you finally have a home.”


©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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