INSPIRED IMPACT™ gives voice to social entrepreneurs and leaders of purpose-driven organizations who are making an impact in their communities, industries, and around the world.
WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
I’m Chris Nelson. I’m the CEO at Attention Homes and we serve youth and young adults who are in less than happy circumstances. Specifically, we support young people who are in the foster care system, young people who are experiencing homelessness, young people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, with continuing services to interrupt those cycles and provide opportunities for healthy pathways to independent adulthood.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY DOES THE WORLD NEED YOU?
There are so many ways to sort of frame that, I think part of the work we do here is to level the playing field for young people who haven’t had the same opportunities as many of their peers. We stand for equity, we stand for opportunity, we stand for inclusion, we stand for access, and hope. Ultimately, we stand for ending youth homelessness.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
In the city of Boulder, we serve 500 to 700 individual young people every year. The most important impact we have in their lives, as they walk in as individuals with their unique circumstances and walk into a place where there are people who care, and they can find or get connected to the resources to help them take those steps while we walk alongside them. That is, undoubtedly, our most significant impact – that intersection with people’s lives at a time that’s just not super awesome for them.
The other impact we have, I’ll give you the long story, but we have undertaken to build 40 units of non-time limited supportive housing for young people and adults specifically between 18 and 24 years old that are experiencing homelessness. It is a housing project for young adults that will help them to move towards stability and self-sufficiency. In that case, again, the most significant impact that we have is how that changes the trajectory of somebody’s life. A secondary consequence that is really important is that we can change the community, and we can change people’s perspectives on these kinds of housing projects. We’re right downtown Boulder, in a very affluent neighborhood, and so we’re bringing an opportunity for young people to be a part of that, and to be a part of this community. That will change how we see youth homelessness, and how we can solve it.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE THIS IMPACT?
It’s every young person who shows up on our doorstep. They inspire me to do this work every day. It’s hard work, but when you see young people exit from homelessness to stability, it’s magic. We happen to have an amazing crew of staff here: volunteers, community support, and a national field that is looking to advance solving this major social problem. It’s an incredibly energizing group of people to be around every day.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS WORK?
The short version of the story is that I was a little bit of an adventurous young man in my adolescence and had some adults who really understood me and were there to support me. I was on a path that was a little bit different than nonprofit work. But as I ventured into adulthood, I realized that what felt good was to try to be one of those adults who was helpful to young people who were maybe misunderstood a bit. I gave it a whack and fell in love with it, and the young people that I worked with. I have been doing that for well over 20 years now and have been at Attention Homes for 12. I came out here to play a little bit and heard about Attention Homes and some of the model and philosophies and wanted to check it out, and within a couple of days, I was working here. I think many people who are doing this kind of work and the people who work at Attention Homes bring a big, big heart to this. To follow that, then you get to see the impact of your contribution.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM, FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
We want to end youth homelessness, we want to solve this problem once and for all, and that in itself is a little bit nebulous, but it’s also a very clear statement. We want young people not to experience homelessness, but if they do, then it’s just for the shortest period of time possible and it doesn’t happen again. When we talk about ending youth homelessness we mean that for young people, they’re not entering into homelessness, but if they do, they’re getting support as quickly as possible, so it’s brief, and it doesn’t occur again. For us that means maybe we’re not the ones who are doing that work in that particular community, but that we can demonstrate a model and continuum of care that can be shared across the country, and we think that we can do that.
WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU NEED TO MAKE THAT DREAM COME TRUE?
Certainly, as a nonprofit, we need resources in terms of time, money, and people to ensure that there are those avenues or pathways to solutions for every person who walks in the door. On a much larger scale, we need the resources to educate the community, the region, the country about this issue and how we believe it’s solvable. Ultimately, and I don’t say this flippantly, we need housing. The problem is big, there are four million young people experiencing homelessness every year in our country and so that requires some pretty big solutions, and we talk about the resources needed to do that – one of the first and foremost resources is housing. When you talk about youth homelessness or homelessness in general, most people tend to self-resolve if they have support and they have some resources to move into their own place or reconnect with family. The resources that we need to ensure that young people aren’t experiencing homelessness are to help support everybody who might have that need to make those connections.
WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
Maybe not specific to the nonprofit world, although I think it does show up a lot in the nonprofit world, is this notion of scarcity thinking. That simply looking at an immediate local problem and saying, “Well, we can intervene in this” isn’t enough, that people need to dream big, I think people need to look at what resources are available in abundance so that we can solve these kinds of problems, and “no” should not be an answer that people accept.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE IMPORTANT WORK YOU’RE DOING?
One is that we can solve this problem, and two is that this problem is not what most people think it is, and I can expound on that a little bit. People don’t see young people experiencing homelessness most typically, so there’s this perception that people have of what youth homelessness is, and it isn’t that. One, it’s not a choice. Two, it’s solvable, and three, young people experiencing homelessness are also often working three jobs and just not making enough money, or don’t have the history or support to become stable. I think that the important work we’re doing relies on people having empathy and compassion for the situations people are in that are not their fault.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
There are four core components of how people can help support the work we’re doing. Certainly, as a nonprofit, financial donations are significant for us, and there’s a multitude of ways to donate and support our programs financially. We have volunteer opportunities, and we have lots of opportunities for people to provide in-kind donations and support. Most importantly, true for Attention Homes, but also true for understanding the gravity of this social problem is for people to educate themselves. There are a lot of links on our website, there’s a lot of information out there. Find a way to give money, goods, or time to Attention Homes, or an organization in their community that’s working to solve this problem, and actively seek to learn more.
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