Chris Richardson and his mom, Eileen, are close.
We’re talking the kind of close that most single moms and their children understand.
And, for Chris and his mom, this bond has only been strengthened by a shared mission to end homelessness.
His mom was always very driven — she climbed the corporate ladder, becoming a successful venture capitalist, then CEO of Napster and another high-tech startup. But it was while Chris was away at college that she decided to tackle a social issue: homelessness.
In 2004, Eileen popped her head into a food closet in Palo Alto, California, hoping to do just that. And it didn't take her long to take giving back to the next level, leading her to launch the Downtown Streets Team.
The nonprofit isn't your average "give 'em food and a place to stay for the night then send 'em on their way" kind of initiative.
In exchange for community volunteer work, Downtown Streets Team offers homeless people food and housing as well as job skills training.
It’s a simple exchange that began in Palo Alto 13 years ago and has spread to communities across California, including San Jose, Sunnyvale, San Rafael, San Francisco, Hayward, and Novato.
The most recent launch is in Santa Cruz, and Eileen's son Chris is leading the way as the chief program officer.
"[Homelessness] is an issue we can't ignore," Chris emphasizes. And while he didn't always think he'd end up working with his mom, it didn't take him long to follow in her footsteps and join her nonprofit full-time to help give back.
The need is certainly great: 66% of California's homeless population live without shelter, and 34% stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.
Downtown Streets Team is committed to shrinking those numbers — and it's also giving homeless people the opportunity to get involved in their communities.
"We give the homeless a platform to give back," Chris explains.
What begins with community service often results in reliable employment. Through this organization, about 20 team members per month go on to take jobs that earn an average of $12.59 per hour. Of those placed, 75% have remained employed after the first three months.
After about six months with the organization, most team members begin working with a staff member who helps them figure out their employment goals.
"Some people are ready to look for work after being with us shortly and some take months to be motivated," says Greg Pensinger, project manager of Downtown Streets Team. "We let them go at their own pace because we want them to succeed."
Greg and Chris take to heart connecting team members with gigs they want to commit to.
And the results are impressive. Not only does Downtown Streets Team give homeless people a chance to better their communities, it also gives them the tools to build a brighter, more sustainable future for themselves and their families.
"When we first meet team members, they are in survival mode. Our goal is to get them to self-sufficiency by offering them housing and employment," says Greg.
But their efforts don’t stop there. Chris and Greg advocate off the streets too.
[rebelmouse-image 19474103 dam="1" original_size="750x563" caption="Chris & Eileen Richardson. Photo from The Family Album Project." expand=1]Chris & Eileen Richardson. Photo from The Family Album Project.
They arrange for team members to share their stories with city staff, church groups, police, and schools in an attempt to challenge stereotypes.
Makes sense. For an issue that so many feel disconnected from, offering a human face and story helps drive the message home and allows people who have experienced homelessness to speak for themselves.
Listening to a person's journey, hearing them out, and connecting with their story can make a world of difference.
"We know that there is more to solving homelessness than just going out there and giving people jobs," says Chris. "We have to get people to understand the homeless. We have to change perceptions."
His mom must be proud.