An Interview with Anthony Zayas

Roberta Machin, BA

 

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Anthony about his role as Housing Support Specialist with ConnectPoints, and how he got involved with social work.  Tan and cheerful after having just returned from a family vacation at Disney World, Anthony first chatted with me about his trip – including his fear of roller coasters and his lengthy quest for his step-daughter’s lost Harry Potter wand. 

I first met Anthony at a Cross Systems Partnership meeting in Coatesville last winter, and was inspired by his passion for serving the homeless population, particularly during a frigid week where Code Blue was in effect and the Coatesville Library was closed, leaving many individuals on the street with nowhere to escape the cold.  Now, Anthony advocates for the development of a program to distribute lunches to kids in Coatesville during the summer, when school is out and they may not be able to eat all day.

After inquiring about his childhood, Anthony told me that growing up in northern Philadelphia, homelessness was a lot more visual.  “There were more services available in Philly than there are here,” he said.  “But whether or not people were utilizing them is a different story.”  Anthony admitted that he didn’t really have any career aspirations as a kid.  “I didn’t think college was for me,” he said.  “My mom was so proud that I graduated high school.  A lot of the kids in my hometown got into drugs and never finished school.”

After graduating high school, Anthony was unsure of his next step and didn’t have much guidance, and so he worked at a lot of different jobs while trying to decide on a career goal.  Eventually, the fear of unemployment encouraged him to begin looking into college.  Anthony realized that he loved the idea of helping people, and was fortunate enough to find a social work program at Eastern University that offered night classes. Therefore, he was able to work during the day and also complete an internship at a homeless shelter in Philadelphia, where he helped run an after school program for youth.

For the next few years, Anthony worked hard to complete his education.  He also began working at a second internship with the Good Samaritan Shelter in Phoenixville.  Anthony explained that the long days were very stressful, and left little time for him to see his wife.  When he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work, Anthony described getting his education despite the town he was from as his greatest success in life.

While at Good Sam, Anthony met Rei Horst, who was working at Family Service of Chester County.  Rei was impressed by Anthony’s people skills and informed him that Family Service was in need of a multilingual provider, and so Anthony applied for and received the job.  Now, Anthony describes Rei as a great role model and mentor in his life, always willing to offer him support and flexibility.  In his role as Housing Support Specialist after the establishment of ConnectPoints, Anthony speaks with people in need of emergency housing, rental assistance, food, and other supportive services on a daily basis.  Anthony enjoys connecting with individuals from other organizations because he believes collaboration between agencies will more efficiently provide clients with the assistance they need.  He also prefers to meet with clients in person, because he has a talent for reading other people’s expressions and analyzing their intentions.

As an active member of Decade to Doorways, Anthony is most proud of his work with the Housing Stabilization Action Team on the Ride Guide, an interactive and user friendly map of transportation throughout Chester County.  Anthony is also interested in becoming a board member at Orion Communities soon.  He enjoys spending time with his family, swimming in his new pool, and watching comedy shows and skits on Netflix.

Having been in the nonprofit world for ten years, Anthony sees himself as quite flexible, a team player, and very much a people person.  Anthony finds his job most enjoyable when the opportunity arises for him to get out in the community and meet with clients or members of other organizations.  Despite being tough-skinned, Anthony still finds it difficult when he knows someone is in a desperate situation and there is nothing that can be done.  He recalls one time when he knew a client would have to spend the night on the street during the winter because the shelters were full, and he felt so upset that he considered paying out of pocket.  But in the end, Anthony says it’s important to keep a thick skin in this line of work, because if you are too soft you can easily be manipulated.

What surprises Anthony the most about his work is that we do not have more resources and affordable housing, considering the level of need in the county.  While he admits that this is partially a funding issue, he also points to the lack of volunteers as a huge factor.  Anthony says he has a hard time finding people who are willing to sacrifice time or resources in order to help out as a volunteer.

On a lighter note, Anthony confessed to me that if he could be any animal, he would choose to be a puppy, because “everyone would treat you good.”  He also proudly stated that he would want Denzel Washington to play him in the movie about his life, because he looks up to the actor.

When asked if ending homelessness in Chester County was possible, Anthony responded optimistically.  “Absolutely,” he said.  “But first the community needs to realize that this is a real situation, because many people are not aware.  We need the general population to come to our meetings.  I think only about 70% of the county knows that ConnectPoints exists.”  I asked Anthony how he thought we would successfully end homelessness, and he said, “If you had asked me this when I first started working, I would’ve said the answer is that we need more shelters.  But now I realize that not everyone has the skills to become stable on their own.  I think we need a housing first approach with more extensive case management, so that we can help people get back on their feet and stay in their housing.”