The Long Road of the Reformer: An Interview with Joe Roos

By Meghan Swartz

Joe Roos spent decades following small steps that led him to found Hide in Plain Sight, a nonprofit combatting student homelessness.

 

Joe Roos remembers looking under the hood of his family’s used car at age 16 with his dad. This wasn’t the first time the car had given them trouble, nor was it the first time that their neighbor Jim Finnigan, a used car dealer, came over to offer his help after seeing their heads disappear beneath the hood.

“I asked my dad, I said, ‘You know every time you have a car problem, Jim helps you. How do you pay him back?’ My dad says to me, ‘Well you know, I have nothing Jim needs. So what I do is I help somebody else out to pay Jim,’” Roos says. “That principle was ingrained in me from the beginning. We have to pay people back, and we have to thank people, and if we can’t help them, then let’s help somebody else out.”

That conversation—which Roos looks back on as a “seminal moment” in his life—would lead him through three separate careers and three different states, eventually landing him in the wealthiest county west of the Mississippi, where he’s spent the last three years at the helm of Hide In Plain Sight, a Colorado-based nonprofit that helps students break out of homelessness.

 

The Invisible

Roos warns that homelessness among students rarely looks how you would expect.

“The teacher finds out, or a counselor, or a neighbor, or…your child is in 5th grade and they know somebody in their classroom who’s having a tough time. You might open your home to that family for a period of time,” Roos says. “They’re homeless, but they’re not visible. They’re hiding in plain sight.”

According to a report on child homelessness by the National Center on Family Homelessness, which defines homelessness as being without a permanent, fixed, and adequate residence, there were 1.3 million homeless students in the country as of 2013.

The causes, according to both Roos and the NCFH report, are largely economic, as the nation faces a high poverty rate and has turned into a desert of unaffordable housing.

“The cost of living is so high and it’s getting higher,” Roos says. “So imagine being a single mom and you’ve got two kids in school, rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,500, $1,800 dollars a month, and in…Douglas County, [CO,] one out of every four jobs pays only $28,000 a year. So if you’re…making $28,000 a year and you’ve got two kids in school and you’re the sole breadwinner, it’s not hard to [begin] couchsurfing.”

Students who are homeless often find themselves in situations that, as children, are far beyond their control—but in some cases, students have to make the decision to leave home on their own. According to Roos, half of students facing homelessness in Colorado also experience domestic violence. One student who came to Hide In Plain Sight lived with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, who bought and sold drugs. Eventually, the student realized that in order to stay safe, she had to leave.

According to the NCFH report, students “have lost safety, privacy, and the comforts of home, as well as friends, pets, possessions, reassuring routines, and community. These losses combine to create a life-altering experience that inflicts profound and lasting scars.”

Put another way by Roos: “If you take away your home and your food, how does [school] look for you the next day? Not so attractive.”

 

The Invincible

Students who come to Hide In Plain Sight—which partners with the local community to offer tuition assistance scholarships, emergency financial assistance for rent and utilities, and a personal support program pairing students with an adult advocate—share a couple things in common. While they all face some sort of adversity, they also know that it doesn’t define them.

“Most of them realize that it’s a temporary situation that they can actually lift themselves out of,” Roos says.

In the past three years, Hide In Plain Sight has awarded 78 scholarships, with most coming in around $3,000. They’re on track to give away 80 additional scholarships by the summer of 2019.

Already, students they’ve worked with have graduated from degree and certificate programs and entered the workforce.

“We want to follow [the students] through their educational process after high school so they can become competitive in the job market,” Roos says. “Once they’re competitive they have a good chance of earning a living or a sustainable wage, and if you have that then you can break your cycle of homelessness.”   

 

Roos’s Response

At only three years old, it might seem like Hide In Plain sight is something of an overnight success in the nonprofit world. But Roos knows better.

During his first career, Roos worked his way up to become a marketing manager at IBM. After sixteen years there, the company downsized, and Roos realized it was time for him to move on. Just before leaving IBM, an arsonist set fire to the church where he served as parish council president, and Roos helped lead the fundraising campaign to rebuild, which ultimately led him to a second career in nonprofit management.

This fundraising career eventually took Roos to Denver. Shortly before founding Hide In Plain Sight, he worked as a part-time fundraiser for a nonprofit offering a food bank, thrift store, and emergency financial assistance to the homeless community. There, he learned that 1,000 students in the Douglas County school district didn’t have a home. While he saw the good that came from providing food, shelter, and clothing, he wanted to complement what services already existed, and believed education was the logical answer. He began dreaming of a long-term, solutions-based approach to addressing student homelessness. One month later, he left his job.

While that may seem like a big leap, Roos could see thousands of small steps behind him leading to this point. Now, he knew he was simply following the path that God had put in front of him.

“I realized along the way in my life that I’m in little control of anything. And when I do get frustrated or whatever I pretty much turn it over and say, ‘Hey God, it’s your problem, not my problem, just let me know what you want me to do.’” Roos says. “I look back and I realized I’m always taken care of. So what am I worried about? If I believe there’s nothing to worry about than naturally I’m in the right place, I’m always in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.”

Roos’ faith was rewarded when, in February of 2015, he filed to officially incorporate Hide In Plain Sight as a nonprofit—a process that normally takes six months to a year. For Roos, it took six days.

He compares Hide In Plain Sight to the parable of the starfish: “A tropical storm…blew up thousands upon thousands of starfish on the beach. The next morning one of the neighbors comes out and he starts throwing the starfish back into the ocean. His neighbor comes down and he says, ‘What are you doing? You’re never gonna be able to clean this whole beach up.’ And the next line is really what our core value, our core principle is: the person said, ‘No, but if I can save one, then it’s worth my effort.’ And so if we can help one student, then this has all been worth it. And we just try to do one at a time and do the best we can.”

 

To learn more about Hide In Plain Sight and how you can partner with students facing homelessness in Colorado or even your own community, visit hideplainsight.org.