Long before he became founder and CEO of Povertees, Tyler Patterson, 24, often felt like an outsider. During a high school biology class, his teacher called him out for a good test grade and asked what he did to study. In a high pitched voice from his seat at the back of the classroom, Patterson said, “I took good notes.” A senior football player from the front of the class turned around and yelled, “He hasn’t gone through puberty yet,” as the class burst into laughter. “In retrospect, I find that story to be really funny, but it’s not funny as a socially awkward kid. I have countless stories like that,” said Patterson. Later as a college student, Patterson and a few friends he knew from high school frequently dialogued about what makes life meaningful. “To us that meant community and companionship. We were focused on treating people with respect and making a difficult life a little more bearable,” said Patterson. Povertees – a non-profit that sells clothing to help homeless friends in downtown Los Angeles to get out of the cycle of poverty – began out of these dialogues.
In 2007, Patterson and his friends decided to walk through the streets a few blocks away from Skid Row in downtown LA to pass out food to people. “Fortunately, we met some people who were welcoming and happy to talk to us,” said Patterson. The next day as it rained, they returned to pass out donated jackets and umbrellas to the same people. “We hung out with them for a long time. We still hang out with them.”
The downtown LA visits took place about once a week for several years in the midst of school and other jobs. As Patterson’s group got to know their new friends – about 20 to 30 people – they discovered practical needs they could meet, such as DMV, court, and bus fees, as well as prevalent jay walking tickets. During college at Hope University in Fullerton, Patterson and friend Matt Donahue began to sew t-shirts in their dorm rooms to sell on campus. Donahue, who named the t-shirt endeavor Povertees, had taught Patterson how to sew in high school. The proceeds from t-shirt sales directly helped their friends in downtown LA. Currently, 20 percent of Povertees’ profit goes toward outreach – 10 percent toward caring for provisional needs and 10 percent toward sponsoring a rehabilitation program at The Midnight Mission.
Patterson had what he calls one of several existential crises after he graduated suma cum laude. He questioned his decision to go to graduate school for experimental psychology research. “I was trying to figure out exactly what was going to be the right career for me in terms of my interests and skills and make me not miserable.
It’s a big decision for everyone. A lot of people going to college aren’t ready to make that decision. I was one of them,” said Patterson.
A week before he was to start his graduate program in 2011, Patterson dropped out in order to focus on Povertees full time while earning income through two side jobs. Povertees officially became a non-profit in March 2013. Since then, Patterson and college friend Hughie Hughes – Povertees president – has worked full time alongside volunteers and interns.
“If I were speaking to my younger self, I would ask, ‘Are you willing to receive a minimal salary for difficult work? Are you willing to have a career you can never really escape from psychologically or do you want a job that allows you to go home at night and decompress without thinking about it?’ If I had to answer those again, I know I would end up doing it,” said Patterson.
Patterson envisions Povertees’ mission growing beyond downtown LA. “We’re learning what it means to create a community built upon our premise of life sewn together. That involves working with art community groups, missions, and partner organizations to build a communal aspect into the recovery process. As we expand, we’re looking to other cities for potential Povertees chapters, but we know that each city presents a new context for the issue of homelessness.”
Patterson shares a story about one of Povertees’ formerly homeless friends with whom they frequently spent time. Their friend often returns to the same streets to spend time with those who continue to experience addiction, mental stress, and lack hope. “He truly is so grateful and feels so impacted by the relationship we’ve had. He’s the template for what we want in terms of the idea of creating a cycle of reciprocal giving to fight against the cycle of poverty.” Povertees’ goal is to begin employing formerly homeless people by the end of the year. “It’s definitely a complex issue. We’re not rushing into it. We’re trying to make sure we’re informed,” said Patterson.
A few pieces of key advice Patterson shared:
• Ask for the opinion and expertise of other companies and organizations that are ahead of you in terms of business development. Use your humble position to your advantage. Make it your strength rather than your weakness.
• On cultivating great communication with team members: Communicate both the positive and negative aspects of the way you’re feeling or the jobs you’re doing.
• On building a strong team: When people are feeling overwhelmed with work, you need to step up and support them and see how you can help alleviate some of those issues.
• Create a culture that values its employees and volunteers and is conscious of how it affects people and other organizations. Stand for something that brings value and meaning to the world.