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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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Paul Lambros: 20 years of helping the homeless

At Plymouth Housing Group, Paul Lambros is helping homeless people find dignity and permanence.

Seattle Times columnist

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There’s a homeless woman who stands outside the offices of Plymouth Housing Group and talks to herself. She speaks clearly and beautifully, pauses to listen to the voices in her head and barely noticed me when I parked out front the other day.

“She’s been out here for years,” executive director Paul Lambros said as he strapped into my car, on our way to coffee. “See how clean the sidewalk is? That’s her.”

He couldn’t tell me her name; she’s never shared it. But she did accept food from him once. Maybe one day she’ll come inside.

Such a small victory would mean as much to Lambros as the countless others he’s had in 20 years of running the Plymouth Housing Group (PHG).

It’s an anniversary that he was too busy to celebrate (“The day flew right past me,” he said), but one that the nonprofit will honor Sept. 19 at its 10th Annual Key to Hope Luncheon at the Westin Hotel in Seattle. ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff will deliver the keynote, focusing on the needs of homeless veterans. (For tickets: www.plymouthhousing.org).

Under Lambros’ guidance, PHG has become one of the most successful models for ending homelessness in the city, if not the country.

It may be hard to see that these days. Over the Labor Day Weekend, some 100 people living in the Nickelsville homeless encampment were forced to disassemble, and rebuild in three different locations. For now.

You may look at that and think we’re getting nowhere on the issue of homelessness.

But Lambros, 51, insists otherwise.

“When people see the same people on the same street corner for years, and then they’re gone,” he said, “they’re probably with Plymouth. It’s making a difference, but it takes time.”

Indeed, PHG’s growth has been slow, but steady and strong — and impossible to ignore.

The nonprofit owns and operates 13 properties and 19 retail tenants around the city, and provides more than 1,000 units of housing on a $15 million annual budget. Lambros gives much credit to his leadership team and front-line staff, and to the members of the Plymouth Congregational Church who founded the nonprofit in 1980.

The Plymouth model is simple: Find buildings that don’t meet developers’ requirements — they’re in the middle of the block, perhaps, or would be better off gutted or torn down — but that are near public transportation and services. Renovate the sometimes-historic space with basic, functional units, make room for on-site social-workers and staff, and then open the doors to a focused community: The elderly. Veterans. People with mental-health issues, or those living with AIDS.

“We are permanent, supportive housing,” Lambros said. “The goal is to keep them in housing, instead of in and out of the sobering center, or in and out of jail, or in and out of the shelters.”

Lambros has a certain compassion for those among us who are adrift, without an anchor, a family, a home.

He was born to teenaged parents who became drug addicts. Lambros and his brother “hopped around a little bit” among relatives before the brothers were placed with a foster family in New Jersey. Lambros was 7.

“My parents died in their early 40s,” he said. “They had me when they were teenagers and never got better.”

He pauses, looks down at the table.

“If only there was a Plymouth for my parents. Things would have been different.”

And yet, he said, “I feel like I’ve lived a charmed life. I ended up with a family that is still my family today.”

He is the eldest of six kids: Him, his brother and four of his parents’ biological children.

For a while, Lambros thought that he wanted to do something far away from the tumult of his childhood, but instead found himself drawn to getting people into housing.

He first came to Washington state to be the associate director of housing at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. He moved to Seattle in 1990, when he accepted a job as the director of housing for the Northwest AIDS Foundation. He joined PHG three years later as the deputy director, and moved up.

Lambros is polished and quick. His job — and Seattle’s slow pace — has forced him to speak with urgency and resolve. He is forceful, a requirement when you speak for a community that can’t care for itself.

“The hard part is to convey to the public how broken these people are and how long it takes to help them,” he said. “They may be homeless, have AIDS, be mentally ill or have drug issues.”

“It takes a while to work with these folks,” he said. “No one has done anything for them like this before, and they need to trust, and it takes time. Plymouth is there, and we’re family to those people.”

Family, in more than just words.

Lambros is a single father to two children he adopted on his own from China when they were infants. Jaden is now 15 and a high-school sophomore; Rachel is 11 and entering sixth grade.

“They keep me grounded,” he said.

He keeps them grounded, too, by making them part of the Plymouth community.

On Christmas morning, they open presents at home, and then visit several of the Plymouth buildings, greeting residents and thanking volunteers who are serving dinner.

“For me, it’s been nice for my kids to grow up with a mission and get it,” he said.

Plymouth is about to begin construction on a new project at Third Avenue and Virginia Street in Seattle, where 65 Plymouth clients will live more independently. The building won’t have 24-hour staffing, but will still be permanent and affordable.

That will free up 65 slots in the other buildings for new clients to come in right off the streets and get their own key for the first time in a long time.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I think housing is healing,” Lambros said. “Get people off the streets and help them work on their issues.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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