President & CEO, Pathways to Housing PA
WHF-PA – Member Spotlight Interview
WHF-PA is pleased to highlight the work and accomplishments of one of its valued members, Christine Simiriglia, President and CEO of Pathways to Housing PA. Chris founded Pathways in September 2008 and has been leading the organization since. Her education and career path leading to her position at Pathways to Housing PA were cultivated in pieces over a lifetime. Chris studied International Relations and Russian as an undergraduate at St. Joseph’s University in the early 1980s. She dropped out after her junior year and traveled to Europe with nothing but a plane ticket, a few hundred dollars, and a work permit. Eventually (30 years later), Chris completed a combined Bachelors/Master’s degree online in Organizational Management. During this time, she also studied liberation and feminist theology.
WHF-PA recently met with Chris to learn more about her career path and the advice she would share with others as a woman leader in the affordable housing development and social services industry.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in an Italian working-class neighborhood in South Philadelphia. My mother is a strong woman who raised me, and my three younger sisters, alone after my father left when I was 12. My mom worked several jobs, always, to take care of us. I am the first person in my extended family to go to college. I have always been insatiably curious about everything, so I learned to read quickly so that I could read a lot… and I have read a lot! I love traveling and spending time with people from other cultures. My idea of saving money is saving to buy the next plane ticket. I am married to the love of my life, Joshua. We live in New Jersey with our two rescue pups Leo and Rudy.
How did your career path lead you to be President and CEO of Pathways?
I feel lucky that I found my calling early. As a freshman at St. Joseph’s University, I volunteered with the St. Joe’s Committee for the Homeless, which I joined because I had a crush on a guy named David LiVigni who worked in campus ministry but stayed because I knew I had found my calling. The group did outreach once a week, bringing sandwiches and blankets to people sleeping on the streets through the Philadelphia Committee for the Homelessness (PCH). That volunteer work meant a lot to me and I found myself helping out at PCH whenever I had some free time, doing outreach, sorting mail, making sandwiches, whatever needed to get done. There were many holidays where I spent more time at a soup kitchen than I did with my own family but, the work just felt right to me… like it was what I was supposed to be doing. Eventually, I worked for PCH, which then led to a job with the City of Philadelphia as Assistant Director of the Office of Services to the Homeless and Adults (now the Office of Homeless Services). After a short stint as a government employee, I went on to run the Outreach Coordination Center for Project HOME. I worked at the Mental Health Association (now Mental Health Partnerships – MHP) for almost 15 years. I accepted a position with MHP to run a federally funded demonstration program working with people who were homeless with mental illness and left as Vice President. After leaving MHP, I heard about the Housing First model and was asked to help bring it to Philadelphia, as Pathways to Housing PA. As a young woman, I was often called bossy. I would call myself outspoken and assertive. Now I know that “bossy” is code for “leader”.
Tell us about Pathways to Housing, PA.
Pathways is a high-fidelity Housing First model working with people who are chronically homeless and struggle with serious mental illness, addiction disorders, major medical issues, and multiple other disabilities. These are folks who did not fit in to our traditional systems of care. Some had been living on the streets for decades. We move people directly into apartments of their choosing with no preconditions and then build modified assertive community treatment services around them. Currently, we are housing approximately 550 people in scattered site master leased units. We have an 85% housing retention rate with people that the system thought would never be housed.
In addition to housing first, we are a satellite site for a federally qualified health center, have an integrated care program that offers Medication Assisted Treatment to people with opioid use disorder, run the Philadelphia Furniture Bank, and provide training through Housing First University.
Your organization aims to provide “Housing First” as a foundational step in stabilizing persons who are experiencing chronic homelessness. We hear a lot about Housing First as a means to end chronic homelessness. What exactly is Housing First, how does it work, and how crucial is it for the success of your clients?
Pathways to Housing PA was founded to positively transform the lives of people experiencing behavioral health challenges and chronic homelessness by supporting self-directed recovery and community inclusion. As an alternative to a system of emergency shelter and transitional housing progressions, our model is simple: provide housing first, and then combine that housing with supportive treatment services in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment.
Housing is provided in apartments scattered throughout the city of Philadelphia. This scattered site model fosters a sense of home and self-determination, and it helps speed the reintegration of our clients into their community. Our goal is for participants to become part of the community, and not just live in the community.
The Housing First Model is based on the belief that housing is a basic human right rather than something people with behavioral health challenges have to earn or prove they deserve by being in treatment. A fundamental principle is that consumers should have a choice in the housing and services they receive and that services should be geared toward supporting their recovery.
At Pathways, we believe in:
- Housing as a basic human right,
- Respect, warmth, and compassion for all clients,
- A commitment to working with clients for as long as they need,
- Scattered-site housing: independent apartments,
- Separation of housing and services,
- Consumer choice and self-determination,
- A recovery orientation, and
- Harm reduction.
Pathways to Housing PA maintains an 85% housing retention rate even amongst those individuals not considered housing ready by other programs. Despite what you may think, it costs us less to house a person than it does to let them continue to be homeless. If you add up all of the costs involved with a person living unsheltered (prison, ambulance services, police interventions, emergency department visits, medical and psychiatric hospitalizations, soup kitchens, shelter nights) it averages out to be much more than the cost of subsidizing rent and providing an appropriate level of services. Couple that with the fact that we rent vacant market rate apartments across Philadelphia, helping to retain our City’s tax base, and we’ve got a win/win! Our services are good for the person who is now housed, and good for our community as a whole.
We want participants to do well, to meet their goals, and to live happily and healthfully in their new homes. To that end, our staff is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to help each participant make it. Our services are delivered with grace and compassion as we help our participants learn the skills they need to succeed. There isn’t magic at Pathways. We have no secret recipe. We have kindness, and smiles, and the offer of a cup of tea or coffee on a cold day. We have an ear to listen and a hand to hold. Isn’t that about all any of us really need or want?
What are some of the challenges you typically face along the way to develop housing for the chronically homeless?
We need more focus on, and incentives for, developing affordable housing and supported housing for everyone in need. The housing and rental markets in this country are out of control and don’t match the income levels of the people looking to buy or rent. Even affordable housing is too expensive for people at the bottom of the poverty scale. We need to fix this broken market.
Housing people with disabilities requires that an appropriate level of support be available to meet their needs. The services need to be coupled with the housing. These are separate systems, and it is sometimes difficult to bring them together. We have been lucky in Philadelphia as our systems talk to each other and partnered on the funding of Pathways.
We need universal healthcare with behavioral health parity. Taking care of our citizens is not socialism, it is good business. Doing the right thing will provide a healthier workforce for employers and, in turn, a healthier economy for the nation.
We must have revisions for all local, state and national legislation that even hints at racial or gender bias. It is everywhere and touches everything. Language is power so we need to clean it up as a step toward healing what ails our country.