How Boulder Bridge House is empowering people experiencing homelessness to build the lives they want

Community support, good food, and skill-building come together in Bridge House’s innovative and effective Community Table Kitchen 

Black and white photo of Chef John Trejo Smiling

By 2013, Chef John Trejo had seemingly done it all. He had worked alongside Wolfgang Puck in his flagship restaurant Spago; served pizza to Madonna and Michael Jackson; worked Academy Award parties with Lucille Ball, Sean Connery, and Warren Beatty; and led kitchens throughout the country. 

A detour into the nonprofit space was supposed to only last two years. He began working at Bridge House in Boulder, Colorado, an organization that breaks the cycle of homelessness. 

Ten years later, however, Trejo’s nonprofit foray has turned into a total career shift. He has trained over 100 individuals through Bridge House’s social enterprise, Community Table Kitchen, which provides paid employment and training in the culinary arts.

“When people ask me what I do, I really have to pause,” says Trejo. “Do you want the long version or the short version? There’s so much involved.”

Bridge House solves homelessness with a “Work Works” approach, providing paid employment, housing and support services to help them leave the streets for good. In doing so, they empower individuals with the tools and confidence to go after the lives they want. 

Boulder Bridge House proves the transformative power of food  

Homelessness rates have been rising in recent years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported that 582,462 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2022. 

To combat this, a variety of bottom-up solutions are being explored, including teaming up with an unexpected ally: chefs. It’s not hard to see the benefits: kitchens are ideal venues for building community, both because they serve as meeting places for diners and employees, and also because they serve food — a universal need, something that bridges all divides. 

“It’s like your house,” says Trejo. “Where does everybody gather? Everybody gathers in the kitchen, always. It’s no different here. People tend to let their guards down, who they are comes out, their true potential comes out. And that gives us an opportunity to see what we can do.”

Bridge House’s Ready-to-Work program allows participants to work in either the Community Table Kitchen (encompassing robust catering services, a café, and mission meals to feed food-insecure individuals), or the outdoor crew (providing landscaping services for local municipalities). The variety of avenues available allows individuals to choose whichever plays to their unique strengths and skills. 

“When they come into the kitchen, they’re pretty guarded,” says Trejo. “They’re all in different places in their recovery… I usually give them a couple of weeks, I let them relax and get comfortable. When that happens, their personality comes out.”

Bridge House goes beyond what it is typically done for those experiencing homelessness. More than just one-time assistance, like a night in a shelter or a meal from a kitchen, Bridge House offers a sustainable change: a chance for participants to discover their talents and passions, gain work experience, and build up a sense of pride through self-sufficiency.

Boulder Bridge House: a community that starts around the table

Alongside their Ready-to-Work program, Bridge House provides support in other essential areas of life, allowing participants to come to work with the ability to be their best selves. 

Trainees live together in one of two sober living homes in either Boulder or Aurora. Their third Ready-to-Work house will open in Englewood, Colorado by the end of 2023. These provide a safe and stable environment, with a supportive cohort of friends and colleagues. Additionally, they have access to: 

  • Recovery groups
  • Job readiness classes
  • Financial management guidance
  • Career mentoring
  • Case management 
  • Medical and dental care

“From a trainee standpoint, you have to be ready for change in your life,” says Trejo. “If you’re not ready for change, what we do doesn’t make sense.”

Bridge House knows that a powerful tool for igniting change is something that many of our neighbors without homes have lost: a sense of community. Each weeknight, Bridge House hosts meals that are offered to individuals in the community who are currently homeless or food insecure. The meals are prepared by trainees at Community Table Kitchen and served by volunteers. Community Table Dinner is the longest running program at Bridge House – spanning the last 25 years in Boulder.

Chef John Trejo (center) and the Community Table Kitchen team accept the 2023 Social Enterprise of the Year Award from Biz West. The awards honor “exceptional leaders” in the nonprofit sector of the local community. 

Boulder Bridge House measures success from the bottom up 

Since 2015, more than 400 people have graduated from the Ready-to-Work program with full-time employment and housing. In 2022 alone, the trainees worked over 51,000 hours and Bridge House provided more than 31,000 nights of housing.

Impact, however, is most visible in the strengthened community that has sprouted around Bridge House, one that continues to grow by the day. 

“To see the transformation in these folks, it’s amazing,” says Trejo. “The real gift here for us in the kitchen is teaching ex-homeless people to cook for the homeless. It’s their way of giving back.”

Learn more about Stand Together’s economic progress efforts.