Given up at birth, Chris Patterson bounced around multiple homes in the Spokane area. But Patterson didn’t become just another physically abused child lost in the system. He became the system.
Patterson formed a company, BreakThrough Inc., in 2006 to help provide services to lost kids like himself. On May 13, 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration appointed Patterson to serve as one of only 10 regional administrators for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The teen who once worked ground maintenance at Riverside High School now is based in San Francisco and oversees a vast bureaucracy that provides housing assistance and grants to needy people in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa.
“Even if I did have some of that stuff happen to me, it’s bygones,” Patterson said, referring to his abuse. “I learned to let things go if I was going to get through life.”
Patterson, 50, worked jobs and continued to pursue multiple degrees until he found himself fighting to provide a future for kids lost in the margins.
“I see the challenges. I’m a very tenacious person,” he said. “I don’t walk away. If it’s the right thing, I’m going to stand there and do it. If there is one less kid in the system, it costs taxpayers less in the long run. If you have a chance to give a kid an opportunity, why not do it?”
Patterson said he knew only bits and pieces of what HUD provided before starting his new job. As a result, he’s been drinking from a fire hydrant as he relies on his professional staff to educate him about the services his agency offers and the needs of the vast population it serves.
“I had never worked for HUD as an employee. It just fits the same purview,” he said. “Look at the issues: homelessness, opioids, kids, families. They do cross paths quite a bit.”
Patterson’s wife, Dalene Patterson, 46, is the vice president of BreakThrough Inc. A former Spokane County corrections deputy, she has now taken over the day-to-day operations of the company that her husband founded.
BreakThrough’s 115 employees work with children who are wards of the state.
“They are kids who come from all different backgrounds. Some are developmentally delayed or autistic,” she said. “A lot of people say they are foster kids. But that’s not what he does. I didn’t even understand at first.”
She explained that troubled youths can be in juvenile custody or in foster care, but the company works with kids who don’t fit in either category.
“The best way I can describe it is that these kids are never going to be foster-ready. They would destroy those families,” she said. “Their level of need is so high that they really need to be in a staff-residential treatment program.”
The company provides medications, school programs or treatment to “develop as many life skills as possible so when they age out, they don’t end up on the street,” Dalene Patterson said. “We’ve had some great success stories. Kids call Chris today that he worked with 20 years ago. They say, ‘Chris, you were the only one who got me.’ ”
Patterson’s own upbringing brings him instant credibility to a lost youth, she said.
“He has a different level of understanding for kids in the system that nobody could have by not going through what he had gone through,” she said. “I think Chris really needed someone to believe in him and encourage him. He’s had several people in his life who have contributed to that.”
Spokane County Superior Court Judge John Cooney has known Chris Patterson for a decade, and he knew Dalene from when she used to transport inmates into court.
Chris Patterson “prides himself on taking on some of the toughest kids,” Cooney said. “He knows how to relate to those kids because of his history and his demeanor.”
Often, troubled youths end up before judges who help decide how society must deal with them.
“You feel for them. From no fault of their own, they go from foster home to foster home and never find someone to adopt them,” Cooney said of some children who end up at BreakThrough Inc. “It’s easy to give up on these kids. Chris has some really strong leadership abilities. Chris does not give up on those kids.”
Patterson had the unenviable job of researching his own troubled past by reading case files.
Given up at birth, Patterson bounced between receiving homes until age 5, when he was adopted.
“There was a lot of physical abuse,” he said. “Some people are not designed to be parents.”
He became a ward of the state at age 12 before he was taken in by foster parents Ron and Carole Schultz, who had a small farm in Elk.
“Ron and Carole at that point had been doing foster care for a significant amount of time and took some pretty tough kids,” he said.
The stable home produced a kid who wasn’t afraid to take on odd jobs. But once he turned 18, Patterson was on his own. He graduated in 1988 from Riverside High School.
After helping fight the massive forest fire at Yellowstone National Park later that summer, Patterson began attending Spokane Community College.
“I just liked going to college,” he said. “To me, it was fun learning.”
In 2011, he earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and applied developmental psychology from Eastern Washington University.
“I had always worked in the field in mental health since I was 20. So, working full time and school full time, it was just a natural fit,” he said. “The more challenging the client, the better.”
Some 15 years ago, he met Dalene, who grew up in Priest River and had become a mother at age 16.
“So, I definitely came from humble beginnings,” she said. “I had three kids when I met him. We have the one daughter together. He came into their life when they were all fairly young, and he treated them like their own. They love him dearly.”
They started the company in 2006, and now Chris Patterson mostly lives in an expensive apartment outside of San Francisco. He comes back to Spokane when his schedule allows.
“He’s learning a lot right now, as fast as he can possibly process it,” Dalene Patterson said. “He’s talking to people nonstop. It’s a very tiring job right now, but he loves it.”
An imposing guy, Patterson believed growing up that he had come from either Italian or Portuguese descent. He had never met his mother or his father.
Last winter, Dalene Patterson paid for a 23andMe DNA test kit and the findings shocked them both.
“I’m 51% Ashkenazi Jewish,” Patterson said. “And I found out through this test that I have a sister who also did the test. I’m the youngest of four siblings on my father’s side.”
While he learned his father’s name, his father had already died. He was able to speak with his mother.
“I rarely have seen him tear up, but that was one of the times,” Dalene Patterson said. “It brought so much closure for so many questions for nearly 50 years.”
Patterson was able to travel to Twentynine Palms, California, earlier this year and meet the family he never knew he had.
“They didn’t have my story,” he said. The reunion “was excellent. It’s a very tight-knit Jewish family. It was pretty cool. I’ve always had the attitude that life is going to throw you a curve ball. You just have to deal with it.”
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