Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

How a Boulder nonprofit served throughout the pandemic

No business was safe from repercussions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, but what about those who had no choice but to stay open? While some businesses were able to shift business models and have their employees work from home, nonprofit organizations, in particular, had to adapt quickly and creatively  in order to continue serving the communities whose livelihood relies on their programs and services.

“At the end of the day, we’re all in this fight together,” says Chris Nelson, CEO of Attention Homes. If you have no other option but to remain open, be sure you’re doing whatever it takes to ensure the safety of your customers and your staff.”

Attention Homes is a nonprofit organization based in Boulder that serves young people ages 12 to 24 who are facing homelessness. The organization was founded in 1966 and has grown to serve over 12,000 individuals, helping them become healthy, productive members of the community.

Among their programs are the Residential Care Program, which provides 10 bed for youth, ages 12 to 17, who are placed through social services due to family disruption and other crises; an Emergency Shelter and Drop-In Center, which provides services around education, employment, family reunification, physical and mental health, and overall well-being; the Transitional Living Program, which provides youth with subsidies to find housing; and Attention Homes Apartments, a 40-unit, apartment project with on-site services for young adults, ages 18 to 24.

However, as coronavirus hit Colorado, Attention Homes had to rethink these services, many of which rely on in-person interactions and contact. ColoradoBiz talked to Nelson to hear how Attention Homes was adapting and get advice for other nonprofits and businesses.

ColoradoBiz: How and when did coronavirus start to impact your business? What was your initial response?

Chris Nelson: Along with the rest of the world, we have been carefully evaluating the ever-changing COVID-19 situation and remain in rapid-response mode to make adjustments to our organization as needed. Due to school closures and families in lockdown, our country is seeing a rise in domestic violence and child abuse calls, and it is only expected to get worse. When in mid-March the coronavirus crisis became apparent, we began immediate efforts to mitigate its impact on the work that we do and the young people we serve.

It remains crucial — and life-saving — to have Attention Homes up and running 24/7 throughout this pandemic. First, we implemented the recommended cleaning and hygiene practices in our programs in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel virus. Then, we halted our Street Outreach Program to prevent our volunteers and staff from having unnecessary contact with individuals and prepared isolation spaces in each of our programs in case COVID-19 enters our facilities. We have lowered our census in both our Residential Care Program and Emergency Shelter to minimize the amount of individuals in our programs, and have temporarily closed our daytime Drop-In Center. We’ve also stopped all on-site volunteering for the foreseeable future and remain to operate a team of staff in our programs.

Throughout the situation, we’ve hosted biweekly organizational updates for the public to keep our community informed, and we remained in communication with schools to provide support while young people are still at home to prevent displacement and/or abuse. And as difficult as it was to make this decision, we rescheduled our annual spring gala for a later date.

CB: As the situation has progressed, what services/solutions have you modified/come up with?

CN: At Attention Homes the safety of our program participants, staff, board members, volunteers, and community are always our No. 1 priority. To aid our efforts, we created a financial modeling plan to responsibly spend our funds and ensure the sustainability of Attention Homes programming. Plus, we developed a continuity of operations plan to ensure our programs can remain running safely and effectively with our program participants’ best interest as our primary concern, which was shared county-wide as a best practice example.

Because many of the young people at Attention Homes are employees of establishments that were forced to shut down, they are suffering through unforeseen adversity. Consequently, we are working to ensure that nobody in need faces food insecurity or loss of housing due to the pandemic. This involves requesting donations and additional support from our community to ensure these young people not only have access to food, can keep their housing and remain safe and healthy, but also, to ensure Attention Homes staff has the resources they need to continue doing important work as they walk alongside young people experiencing this adversity.

We continue to support youth in school as remote learning becomes the new normal. Plus, we are providing virtual case management to ensure young people are staying on track with their goals, and we are checking in with each program participant regularly to offer mental health support. We are also looking at opportunities to support families to prevent displacement. Most importantly, we are remaining open for those young people who need a safe place to be with the support they deserve.

Additionally, we’ve made temporary adjustments to our PTO/sick leave to ensure that no staff member who is asked to stay home will face undue financial hardship. We’re readdressing our consistent systems in place for keeping our spaces disinfected and postponing large group trainings and meetings. And as always, we continue to remind program participants the importance of healthy hygiene practices. Finally, we started a resource hotline for individuals to navigate available resources during this crisis.

CB: What advice would you give to other businesses who have no option but to stay open during COVID-19?

CN: At the end of the day, we’re all in this fight together. If you have no other option but to remain open, be sure you’re doing whatever it takes to ensure the safety of your customers and your staff.

Whether that means altering your operating hours, utilizing a contactless strategy for to-go and delivery orders, offering products or services online, offering reduced or free shipping to encourage online orders or getting creative, do it. Adhering to safety regulations while finding ways to adapt to the reality of social distancing will help your employees and customers get through these tough times — and help your business come out stronger on the other side.

CB: As the state begins to enter a period “safer-at-home,” what advice and warnings would you give to businesses as they start to re-open?

CN: More or less the same as before, but I would add to not rush to reopen before you and your staff are comfortable doing so. Times are already stressful enough, you don’t want to increase the pressure your employees are undoubtedly feeling by forcing them into a difficult situation where they’re worried about their health and overall well-being.

Follow the recommended health and safety guidelines, wear masks and make sure employees and customers are keeping a safe distance from each other. If you don’t have to reopen at full capacity, don’t risk it. Exercise caution and take personal responsibility. We are talking about life and death, so take your choice to reopen seriously.