Durham County

At Urban Ministries of Durham, Patrice Nelson arranges broader help for those in need

Urban Ministries of Durham, under Patrice Nelson’s leadership, last year helped move 290 people out of homelessness.
Urban Ministries of Durham, under Patrice Nelson’s leadership, last year helped move 290 people out of homelessness. cliddy@newsobserver.com

As temperatures drop and the holidays near, thoughts tend to turn to helping those in need – including thousands of North Carolinians who enter this season without a home.

As director of Urban Ministries of Durham, Patrice Nelson will be among those urging donations of food, time and money to help the homeless this season.

But she’ll also be looking for ways to make a more personal connection with homelessness, asking people throughout the community to take that extra step in imagining what it’s like to go without a toothbrush or to find solace in a stranger’s note on a bag of donated food.

Nelson is a pastor and longtime nonprofit manager who came to Urban Ministries after losing her own home to fire in 2009.

In the five years since, she has expanded the organization from primarily a shelter and food pantry to a more comprehensive service for the homeless, including medical care, job placement and connection to other groups that help find permanent housing.

To do that, she has forged a number of key partnerships, including one with the ad agency McKinney, which created a video game about homelessness and an innovative website where people can get naming rights for specific items of need, from stoves to toilet paper

Terry Allebaugh worked with Nelson closely as director of Housing for New Hope, which helps find housing for the homeless. Under Nelson’s leadership, that group now has an employee at Urban Ministries to help ease the transition from the temporary shelter.

He says Nelson’s ability to connect and unite people has been an asset to Durham.

“I think she really understands where the heart of this issue is,” Allebaugh says. “Her sensitivity to people who are homeless and struggling really gives her a solid ground to stand on as she tries to unite people behind ending homelessness.”

Fixing broken people

Nelson, 61, grew up in Washington, D.C., part of a middle-class black family during a time when struggles to gain racial equality were a daily reality.

She remembers riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and says the sights of poverty and conflict she witnessed during her youth made her committed from an early age to a career in “making cities better.”

She graduated from the National Cathedral School, a private women’s high school, and went on to study urban planning at MIT in Boston.

From there she went to Kansas City, and then Philadelphia, working as a city planner and then in community development projects. Eventually, she was drawn to work more closely with people in need.

“I realized you can build all the curbs and gutters and do all of the business attraction you want, but if what’s broken in the city is the people, then you have to start there,” Nelson says.

She was ordained as a minister, and spent nearly a decade working in the Presbyterian Church, serving in executive roles as well as at individual churches. Part of her job was to develop community programs such as food pantries.

The work led her to a deep understanding of urban problems, and she went on to seek remedies to these issues as a manager in city government and as the director of a regional economic development agency.

Nelson came to Durham from Philadelphia, where she was a deputy director at a nonprofit committed to ending domestic violence. The Laurel House offered a shelter for abused women as well as a host of other services, such as counseling, legal help and children’s programs.

Not just housing

Urban Ministries of Durham started more than 30 years ago as a host site for the efforts of several area churches. In 2001, the groups combined to create a single entity with a shelter, a cafe serving free meals and other resources for the homeless, poor and hungry.

Urban Ministries has a budget of $1.6 million, more than 30 employees and 2,000 volunteers.

When Nelson arrived in 2009, the organization was facing a budget shortfall and an increase in the number of people in need because of the economy’s downward spiral.

She zeroed in on a key problem: the shelter’s long-term residents. Nelson renewed the organization’s focus on serving as an emergency shelter, a sort of triage site where people can get a night’s rest and a meal before moving on to the next steps – such as treatment for mental and physical ailments and a permanent job.

“The emergency shelter is not supposed to be your destination,” she says. “So we developed a system to help them move forward.”

The nonprofit helped move 290 people out of homelessness last year, in addition to housing 140 homeless people every night. The group’s Community Café serves 600 meals a day. It gives free food and clothing to an average of more than 450 households a month.

Her focus on collaboration has meshed well with a statewide effort to end chronic homelessness within 10 years.

She has built strong partnerships with groups that help facilitate the next steps in transitioning from homelessness, such as housing agencies and city government.

She has also reached out in novel ways to increase the nonprofit’s fundraising capacity, such as taking advantage of a program to install solar panels at nonprofits for free, saving thousands of dollars on energy costs.

One of the more unusual partnerships Nelson formed was with the advertising agency McKinney, which undertook two projects to support the nonprofit. The first was a video game, called SPENT, in which players have to make the difficult decisions many low-income families face.

Players are asked to make donations, share the game or get involved with Urban Ministries.

McKinney also designed a website where donors can buy naming rights to a variety of needed items, from toothbrushes to stoves. Even small donors get to create and download posters with names such as the “Allison Linn Coffee Cup of Good Mornings.”

SPENT has raised about $70,000 since it was launched in 2011, while the namesforchange.org website has raised more than $50,000 in its first year.

But Nelson says the effort has also succeeded in raising awareness and in helping people relate to the reality of homelessness. Imagine getting your only pair of socks wet when it’s freezing out, or having to go to a job interview without deodorant. Imagine not having diapers for your baby.

“The items and the stories are designed to help people connect on a human level,” Nelson says. “Whether you’re homeless or not, you can imagine being there.”

Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at tarheel@newsobserver.com or find Tar Heel of the Week on Facebook.