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2008 Behavioral Health Champion: Sam Tsemberis, PhD

December 1, 2008
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Photographer: Pam Parlapiano

Position: Founder and Executive Director

Organization: Pathways to Housing, Inc.

Service areas: New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia

Main services: Supportive housing for people with behavioral health issues

Number of staff: 180

Most vivid behavioral healthcare memory: “There are many wonderful memories: Nathan having dinner with his children in his own apartment after they were released from foster care and he was no longer homeless; Monique leaving the large refrigerator box under the FDR Drive carrying her plastic bags and stepping into the van to be transported to her new apartment; the look on Alan's face as he holds up his new work ID after being unemployed and homeless for 12 years; and a thousand other snapshots just like these.”

Favorite quotes: “If we cannot trust others to know themselves and their needs, we will end by oppressing them.” —Michael Rowe, author of

Crossing the Border: Encounters Between Homeless People and Outreach Workers; “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” —President Franklin D. Roosevelt



“One of my earliest mentors was Moshe Varde, a psychologist at Bronx State Psychiatric Center and my first clinical supervisor. I had been assigned to work with a man named Vincent. I dutifully met with Vincent and then showed up for my supervision with Moshe with notes and lots of facts about Vincent's life. Moshe listened but kept interrupting me with questions: ‘Why did he do that?’ ‘When did he decide that?’ And so it went for the second and third meeting. Finally, I asked Moshe, ‘What is the point of asking all these questions about his life?’ Moshe answered almost immediately: ‘Vincent's story is a series of fragmented experiences. He has suffered many hardships but has not stopped to reflect about how they have affected him. Your questions are possibly helping him to clarify his experiences and to understand himself a little better. And you are getting to understand him, and understanding is the first step to love.’ “This is how I learned about compassionate listening: hearing what the person is saying without the filter or bias of the labels or diagnosis. These are the lessons that led my colleagues and me to develop the Pathways' Housing First program. We put what we learned from listening to consumers into action and developed a program based on the expressed needs and wishes of our consumers. Our consumers were very clear about the kind of program they wanted—housing first, then treatment. Our challenge was to work up the courage to trust that our consumers knew what they were talking about and be willing to put our professional and personal reputations on the line to prove them right. “The success of the Housing First program has been an extraordinary demonstration of the effectiveness of using a consumer-driven approach to solve a complex clinical and social problem.”


Behavioral Healthcare 2008 December;28(12):8-15

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