Chris Simiriglia is CEO of Pathways to Housing PA, an organization focused on transforming the lives of people experiencing mental health challenges and chronic homelessness. We recently featured Pathways to Housing PA in our guide, Lifting the Burden of Addiction. Here, Ms. Simiriglia talks with the Center about setting people on the path to recovery from substance use disorders by ensuring stable housing.
Center: Homelessness is a problem across the country, and hundreds of programs exist to tackle the issue. How does Pathways to Housing PA fit into that landscape? What makes your services helpful to the population you serve?
Many people think that housing is an end goal, but for the people Pathways to Housing PA serves, it’s just the beginning. Homelessness includes a wide range of conditions, from someone who is experiencing a temporary hardship like an unexpected job loss to someone who has lived on the streets virtually their entire adult lives. The program landscape therefore includes a similarly broad array of services. We fit in at the far end of that range, working with the populations that are hardest for other programs to reach: the chronically homeless. That usually means that they’ve been homeless for decades and have a serious mental illness. They may be resistant to help, or they may have tried to get help through programs that wouldn’t accept them until they met certain conditions, such as staying sober for a set period of time, or taking prescribed psychiatric medication. We house people without those requirements. In 2008, the City of Philadelphia gave us a list of 125 individuals that they hadn’t been able to get off the streets with traditional programming. In 18 months, we housed every person on that list. At the five year mark, 89% of those individuals had retained their housing and stayed off the streets.
Center: Why do you think you were you able to help your clients succeed when others couldn’t?
We’re able to help our clients achieve success because our services are designed to meet them where they are. We provide permanent supportive housing without preconditions (an approach known as Housing First), but that’s just the first step. Housing is the foundation for a whole set of wrap-around services to help our clients manage the activities of daily life, allowing them to create a stable and functional environment for themselves. For example, one of our service coordinators might help a client arrange transportation to an AA meeting, or accompany them to a grocery store to help them pick out affordable and nutritious food, or they might suggest to a client that their elderly neighbor could use a hand shoveling the sidewalk. Housing gives our clients the stability to access those other services and make improvements in the rest of their life. It can help them relearn how to be good neighbors.
Center: The people Pathways is trying to help often face difficult life circumstances, but we’ve heard many success stories as well. Can you provide our readers with one example?
One person, in particular, comes to mind. He is someone I’ve known for over 20 years in other positions I’ve held in homeless services. He was chronically homeless all that time and dealing with depression and alcoholism. I don’t remember ever seeing him sober. He’d be in and out of emergency rooms, jails, and psych hospitals. He was always filthy, depressed, physically ill, and drunk. And then Pathways met him. He’s been housed for over two years in an apartment of his choosing. He still drinks, but less. He’s still not the cleanest person I know, but is much better. He came to a memorial service for a staff person who passed, and it was the first time I’d ever seen him sober. He stood and spoke about his relationship with this nurse, how she made an impact on his life, and how he was sober that day out of respect for her. He has built some friendships and has begun repairing some family ties. Actually, he’s quite charming when he’s sober, and I made it a point to tell him that. A life reclaimed… that is what our work is all about.
Center: What’s the one thing you wish donors knew about this field?
There’s a myth that someone has to be “ready” to be helped, and that we can tell who’s ready and who isn’t. In reality, even with all of the great tools we have, we know very little about who’s housing-ready. And someone who isn’t ready for one type of service—for instance, a program that requires sobriety– might be ready for another kind of help. Everyone deserves the opportunity, and our numbers bear that out. The 125 people on our initial list from the City of Philadelphia weren’t “housing-ready” by any standard metric, but we housed them when no one else would. Seven years later, we’re housing over 400 individuals, including people whose mental illness and substance use disorders kept them out of other programs.
Center: What could Pathways to Housing PA accomplish with an increase in philanthropic funding?
We are funded through a mix of public and private dollars. Government funding pays for very specific slices of the services we provide, such as rent subsidies and case management. Private dollars, such as gifts from individuals and foundations, allow us to provide more comprehensive and more innovative services. Some of these include primary care services for our program participants, field trips and activities that help people learn how to socialize in the community, emergency utility payments, money to pay for medication, and emergency food. Another great example is the Barra Foundation’s funding allowed us to get the Philadelphia Furniture Bank off the ground. This is a program that provides social, financial, and environmental benefits: we collect used furniture that would otherwise be headed to the landfill, and distribute it to people moving out of homelessness at no cost. People can come to the warehouse and “shop” for what they need to get themselves and their families off to a new start. The furniture bank also offers transitional supported employment opportunities to Pathways’ clients. This program wouldn’t have been possible without philanthropic funding. The flexibility of philanthropy allows us to innovate and serve our community in new and better ways.