Heroes of The Homeless Crisis: How Christine Simiriglia of Pathways to Housing PA is Helping To Support Some Of The Most Vulnerable People In Our Communities

Make eye contact and acknowledge them. Maybe buy them a cup of coffee or lunch and strike up a conversation. Most great acts start with a little kindness. If there are specific needs, reach out to a local resource and try to connect them. Most communities have resource guides that list shelters, meal programs, and other services.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Simiriglia, President and CEO of Pathways to Housing PA, a homeless services agency she launched in 2008. Under her leadership, Pathways has rapidly expanded services to meet the growing and changing needs of those with disabilities experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. The agency currently serves over 550 individuals and has an 85% housing retention rate after five years for individuals who were considered “not housing ready” by other programs.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

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 us when I was 12. My mom worked several jobs, always, to take care of us. I am the first person in my family to go to college, though my younger sister, Annette, was the first to get a graduate degree.

I’ve always been insatiably curious about everything, so I learned to read quickly so that I could 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.

From an early age I’ve been outspoken and assertive. My sisters call it bossy. I prefer to think of it as “having leadership skills”.

I’m married to the love of my life, Joshua. And we have two rescue pups, Leo and Rudy.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

When I was a freshman at St. Joseph’s University, many many many years ago, I volunteered with the St. Joe’s Committee for the Homeless. I joined because I had a crush on David LiVigni from campus ministry, but stayed because I’d found my calling.

We did outreach once a week, bringing sandwiches and blankets to people sleeping on the streets through the Philadelphia Committee for the Homelessness. 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 family. That work just felt right to me… like it was what I’m supposed to be doing.

The more I got to know people living on the street, the more I realized that what people really needed was permanent housing first and foremost. Most programs had conditions attached to housing that left a lot of people without any options.

Fast forward about 35 years — I’m still doing this work that I love, and unbelievably, have been able to serve some of the folks that I met on the streets doing outreach years ago. The exciting news is that some of those chronically homeless people with disabilities are now housed and being served by Pathways. It is a gift to be able to provide people with what they need to thrive.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Homelessness is a symptom of our failing systems: lack of affordable housing, poverty and erosion of the middle class, unemployment, dismantling of our social safety nets, failing school systems, barriers to accessing primary care, mental health care and substance use treatment, not to mention systemic racism, among others. Hopelessness is another symptom and it has led to the increases in substance use disorders which has subsequently increased the number of people living on our streets, especially in cities.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

First of all, there is no such thing as a “typical” progression. Many people aren’t healthy and have never had a stable place to live, a job (or a job paying a living wage), or a decent education. Many have never known the comfort of family, social or community supports. What many have known is decades of lack of opportunity, going to bed hungry, schools without books or nurses, self-medicating for untreated illnesses, trauma, PTSD, a biased justice system, and other societal ills. Yes, homelessness can happen to anyone, but most often it happens to folks who are under-resourced and underserved to begin with. All it takes is one setback, like an unexpected medical bill when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, to lose your home. The constant stress and trauma that results from making decisions between food and necessities on a daily basis affects your health and triggers any existing mental health issues, making it more likely that you’ll make a misstep that leads you to sleeping in your car or unsheltered. On the surface, it may appear that someone is fine; these struggles aren’t always visible. Especially for younger folks, the desire to fit in and appear “normal” is so strong that they hide any signs of their struggle from their peers.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Places with less expensive housing also have lower wages and less job availability so the value is cancelled out. Also, it costs money to move and for someone wondering where their next meal is coming from, that is just not a viable option.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

Make eye contact and acknowledge them. Maybe buy them a cup of coffee or lunch and strike up a conversation. Most great acts start with a little kindness. If there are specific needs, reach out to a local resource and try to connect them. Most communities have resource guides that list shelters, meal programs, and other services.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

I’m not a proponent of giving people money on the streets, especially if they are panhandling. However, during the pandemic, I have given people money for food understanding that a lot of the food resources that were available in our city are now limited or closed. Whatever you are comfortable doing, understand that it is helping an immediate need (which is important) and is not going to end that person’s homelessness.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

Pathways to Housing PA has moved 550+ people out of homelessness and into market rate apartments throughout the city of Philadelphia. We provide holistic services including — case management, primary care, mental health care, treatment for substance use and help with activities of daily living. Our staff works with people to relearn how to interact in the community and to feel comfortable visiting places like church, recreation centers, restaurants and other activities that are part of everyday life.

In addition, we opened the Philadelphia Furniture Bank to furnish homes for individuals and families moving out of shelter and transitional housing and into permanent housing. We also launched Housing First University to teach other organizations and communities how to do what we do, and enjoy similar positive outcomes.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

COVID-19 has made it more important than ever to find safe places for people to stay/live that are not crowded shelter sites. From March to May of this year, in the middle of the pandemic, we moved 77 people off the streets and into apartments of their choosing. That is 77 people living in a safer environment and receiving vital services to keep them healthy and safe. Our work has increased to fill gaps in service due to the virus. We needed to become a provider of food for many as those resources cut back or were overtaxed. Our clinic volume increased as emergency departments dealt with COVID. We are graced with an amazing staff who stood up to meet the changing and challenging needs as presented.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

What makes me most proud is the fact that we can instantly move someone into an apartment of their choosing, and with some help, actually end their homelessness permanently.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

We met Maria (not her real name) in 2014 after she had been living on the streets for 9 years. Maria struggles with mental health issues, is deaf and was wearing metal braces on her teeth well in to her 30’s. She was deathly afraid of going to a shelter, but found comfort in numbers on the streets.

Maria had been living on her own in an apartment. One night, her apartment was broken into and she was assaulted. Because she is deaf, she didn’t hear the assailant enter her home. She was afraid to be there after that, and so began a long and heartbreaking struggle with homelessness.

With support, she began to trust us to help keep her safe and she moved into a Pathways’ apartment. She got cochlear implants to help her hearing, adaptive technology to make the apartment safer, and had her braces removed. Over the years, Maria has really opened up and now lives a life focused on wellness (she does yoga videos) and purpose. She is an inspiration and her life is a story of resilience.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

  • VOTE for legislators who understand the root causes of homelessness and poverty and are committed to changing them.
  • GIVE to vetted organizations that are working to lift people up. Do some research and be confident with your gift.
  • DO acts of kindness and services that make a difference in your community. Help keep your food pantry stocked. Serve at the local soup kitchen. Tutor kids in underprivileged situations.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I’m not sure about laws but in terms of policy:

  1. More focus on 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. We need to fix this broken market.
  2. Universal healthcare. 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.
  3. 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.

And really, we spend enough on hammers and golf in the federal budget to cover the costs.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

  • I work with people that I love.
  • I see kindnesses happen every day.
  • I have a great support system.
  • I’m amazed, every day, at the resilience of the human spirit and that gives me reason to keep moving forward.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I believe there will always be those who have more, and those who have less. As an overly enthusiastic young person I thought that we could end homelessness. Now I think that we can end homelessness for one person at a time, and improve our service systems to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Everyone deserves an opportunity.
  • Nothing is personal.
  • There are no great accomplishments without risk.
  • Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
  • Always speak truth to stupid.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not so sure about the “enormous influence” part, but I think we should start a movement to do small and not so small acts of kindness each day. Let kindness be the lens through which we make decisions, and interact with people. Let us know that sometimes kindness may make us uncomfortable, or cost a little, or take some time, but know that that act of kindness can change a life and, in turn, change the world. There are 7.8 billion people in the world. Think what 7.8 billion kindnesses can do for us all!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Hope is not a plan.”

Hope alone is useless unless it is part of a strategic plan with specific actions to lead to the hopeful outcome. I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Nadia Bolz-Webber is a Lutheran Minister and public theologian. Nadia is irreverent and holy at the same time, making sure that everyone (and I mean everyone) knows that they are included in God’s grace and ensures that all are welcome and celebrated. Every single time I read something she’s written or hear her speak, I feel like I’ve reconnected with a force greater than myself. She helps me to define the reasons I do this work, and how to do more and better, and not crumble under the weight of it all.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @ChrisSimiriglia

LinkedIn: @ChrisSimiriglia

…and occasionally on the Pathways’ blog: https://pathwaystohousingpa.org/news

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes of The Homeless Crisis: How Christine Simiriglia of Pathways to Housing PA is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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