Many things about John Lambert wouldn’t surprise you. With his big, confident speaking voice, hearty laugh, and warm hand shake, it’s natural that he’s a minister. He’s easy to like and confident, with a quick wit, so it’s no surprise that he was instrumental in developing the landlord relationships our housing program depends on. But there are two things you probably wouldn’t guess about John. One is that years before he came to work as our Housing Director, John himself experienced addiction and homelessness. Two is that he nearly refused to come work for Pathways at all.
When John talks about his addiction it’s with the ease of someone who has made peace with his demons. “How long were you homeless?” I ask. He starts throwing out years, and dates, recalling different events to help him locate the timeline. John describes himself in those years as a “functioning addict,” someone who lived on friend’s couches, used in his personal time, and still made it to work in the morning. “I wasn’t the best thief,” he laughs, “so I had to have some way to make money.”
John never gives me a solid figure of years spent on the streets, but in total he had two significant periods of addiction and homelessness. The first time he got clean was in 1989. He stayed clean four years, slipped back into addiction, and stayed three more years. “Then I got arrested,” he says matter-of-factly, “and that was my life saver.” “Really?” I ask, unsure if he’s joking. People with mental illness, like our participants, are often inappropriately jailed for issues related to their mental health. It’s an adjustment to hear John casually credit prison with returning him control of his life. He assures me, “really.” Prison was good for him.
John spent 4 years in prison. Not only did it keep him away from drugs, it reintroduced him to God. John had grown up attending church, but hadn’t taken his faith seriously for years. “I took Bible courses, and eventually ran groups,” he says. “I even started the first choir at that prison.” (As I said, some things about John are easy to believe.) “My faith helped me stay focused. It let me see life through a different lens.”
John served his time, left prison, and stayed out of trouble. A friend invited him to move to South Jersey, away from his old neighborhood, and he began working for the Mental Health Association in Philadelphia. He started as a case manager, then worked his way up to managing a team of four at a dual-diagnosis treatment program. It was at MHA that John and Pathways’ CEO Chris Simiriglia first worked together. “She didn’t want to hire me at first,” John laughs. “But she told me she’s glad she did.”
Chris’s liking for John increased so much that in 2008, when she was pulling together a team to begin Pathways to Housing PA, she called him up. “She wanted me to come work for her, but I was leery. I was not enthused.” John was so leery that he almost refused the job. He had worked his way up in a system that believed people should earn their own apartments. He didn’t think housing-first would be successful. “I had a friend down at the city. When he heard I was taking the job, he told me ‘You know we’re going to be monitoring that program very closely.’ ” John chuckles, recalling the eyebrows our program raised just nine years ago.
It’s safe to say John has become a housing first convert. “I had to watch and see that people stayed housed, and they got better,” he explains. “I’ve seen people get better, people who if they’d stayed in a traditional setting would never be able to live on their own.” His conversion was so complete that when he returned to Rutgers for his masters a few years ago, he wrote his thesis on why Housing First is an important component in addressing homelessness. “I really feel like we do God’s work here,” he tells me. “I enjoy the participants. Their success stories keep me going.”
If you came to Pathways tomorrow, I know you’d find John gracefully smoothing things over with a landlord, encouraging a participant to be honest about their addiction, and joking with one of his housing staff. You might catch a warm hand shake, a big hug, or a smile. But if you’re really lucky, and can grab a minute of his time, you should sit him down and ask him to tell you a story. There are some stories you might expect from John Lambert. But one thing I can guarantee- he’s got a few that you’d never see coming.
Right now John is busy housing people to get them out of the cold. To partner with John, visit our amazon wishlist here and pick out some housing items our participants use every day.
About the Author
Becca DeWhitt is an MBA candidate at Temple University. She is passionate about creating a world where everyone's experience and perspective is valued, and sees story-telling as a powerful tool to that end.
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