What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?
Imagine it is 1992 in New York City. You are a 51 year old white woman. Your name is Nel. There is a doorway on the south side of Grand Central that you like; room for your shopping cart, dark so people walking by don’t always notice. During the day you collect food from garbage bins outside of restaurants, and napkins from McDonalds or Deli’s to make a kind of diaper you wear (for the times there are no bathrooms).
Street outreach workers talk to you about taking medication and staying sober. They say if you stop drinking, take your meds, go into a transitional program, you could get housing. They don’t understand what happened in the bad place or how much you have to focus.
Then you meet a man named Sam. He sits next to you and asks how he can help. You tell him about the buzzing in your veins and the men that want to kill you, and yes, you want an apartment. Sam visits, brings you food, and says he is committed to helping you get an apartment.
One day Sam comes by and tells you he has been working hard and is finally able to ask if you want to see an apartment. He puts your cart in the back of his van and drives you to 57th Street. You are scared, but you trust him, and he promises to keep your cart safely locked in the van while you both look at the apartment.
It is a small two room apartment, with bars on the windows and deadbolts on the door that make you feel safe. There is a refrigerator, a stove, and a bathroom. Sam hands you the key, asks if you want to live here, and says it’s ok to bring your shopping cart inside.
Fast forward to 2010, and the not for profit that Dr. Sam Tsemberis founded in 1992, Pathways to Housing, has ended long term homelessness for thousands of people in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC. People, like Nel, that program after program deemed. “not treatment compliant,” and “not ready for housing.”
Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.
The social innovator who established Pathways to Housing in 1992 is psychologist Sam Tsemberis, Ph.D. Mr. Tsemberis was working for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, treating homeless people with mental health and substance abuse problems, when he noticed that “business as usual” was not working. The most vulnerable population cycled repeatedly through the streets, emergency rooms, drop-in centers, shelters, and jail cells. When he asked them, “What is the first thing you want?”, they invariably answered, “A place to live.” From these repeated responses, the concept of Housing First was designed. Pathways believes that not only is housing a basic right but also that with psychiatric disabilities have the inherent ability to improve their lives.
Rather than exclude homeless people in isolated enclaves, Housing First brings them back into the greater community by providing permanent, independent, private apartments scattered throughout the community. It also does so with a consumer-directed focus—that consumers have a choice in the treatments they receive and in the development of their Individual Service Plan. Providing housing and holistic treatment enables our consumers to pull their lives together in a more meaningful way.
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