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Meet The Disruptor: Nikki Johnson-Huston

Informed by her own year of homelessness, a Philly tax lawyer created an app to help connect those in need with the organizations that help

When Nikki Johnson-Huston was nine, her family lost their home.

When they could afford it, they stayed in hotels or short-term apartments. When the money ran out, they relied on the kindness of friends and strangers who would let them sleep on the couch or in a spare bedroom. Other times, they used the last of their cash to get to a shelter at someone’s suggestion. Sometimes the shelter was closed or didn’t serve families.

“We didn’t have a network of people we could go to, so we would get sent to places that didn’t serve people in our population,” Johnson-Huston recalls. “It made us very distrustful of the system.”

Now Johnson-Huston, a tax attorney and former Assistant City Solicitor, has translated this early experience with homelessness into a platform to affect change. She conceived and funded the creation of a new mobile app, Donafy (available March 2 in the Apple store), which can turn every smartphone user in Philadelphia into a street team for the area’s local organizations fighting to end homelessness.

The app’s name is a mishmash of the words “donate” and “notify.” The app enables users to alert local organizations of people in need of help by making a phone call through the app, as well as give donations as small as $1 to organizations set up to take them through PayPal.

“I wanted to get young people in the habit of giving, which I call ‘micro-philanthropy.’ I think it’s great if you have millions to give but most people don’t,” she says.

She likes the immediacy with which app users can give to their chosen organization. She recalls one time giving $5 to a homeless man outside a Wawa. When she saw him use it to buy cigarettes, she thought there had to be a better way to give her money. “I’m not going to judge that person, but I felt like I didn’t really help them,” she says. “I felt like, Gosh, if I’d given $5 or $10 to an organization how would they help people like this?

Johnson-Huston was homeless for one year before her mother sent her, at age 10, to live with her grandmother in the California cities of Santa Maria and San Diego. The two lived on public assistance and she attended public school. Meanwhile, her mother met the man who would become her stepfather and they shifted from place to place. Her brother was sent to foster care, and struggled with homelessness until he passed away in 2010.

“I’m incredibly lucky. My mom did what a good mom does: You give your child the best options you can in life,” Johnson-Huston says. “Living with my grandmother was the best option for me.”

While she lived with her grandmother, she learned the importance of service. The message that sticks with her: There is no shame in being poor, but being poor of character.

Johnson-Huston hopes her app will teach young adults that they have something to give, even if it’s just $1. “I wanted to get young people in the habit of giving, which I call ‘micro-philanthropy.’ I think it’s great if you have millions to give but most people don’t,” she says.

Her sense of responsibility for taking action to help others comes not only from her grandmother’s parenting, but from her life after homelessness. “To a certain extent it was a lot of luck on my part,” Johnson-Huston says. “It was people giving me second, third and fourth chances.”

Johnson-Huston earned a scholarship to St. Joseph’s University. But the transition into college life didn’t go smoothly. She had no money, and struggled to pay her tuition and meal plan. She didn’t even have a decent winter coat. “While my roommate lived in a million dollar house in Bryn Mawr, I really struggled,” she says. “And instead of asking for help, I got depressed and stopped going to class and failed out.”

She got a job as a nanny during the day, went back to college at night and graduated in 1998 from St. Joe’s. Then she earned three degrees from Temple University Beasley School of Law in 2004. Johnson-Huston, named to Philadelphia Tribune “10 Under 40 to Watch in 2010,” spent over six years as an Assistant City Solicitor before starting her own practice.

“The city has given so much to me—allowed me to get an education, have a home and start a business,” Johnson-Huston says. “This project is my give-back to the city.”

Her path through adversity has become both a tool and the motivation to help others. For five years, Johnson-Huston has spoken about her past to clients of non-profits, at non-profit fundraisers and at colleges. Originally, her audience was younger and poorer. She wanted to speak to those who were in or near a state of homelessness to show them they weren’t alone.

“When I was growing up, I wished that I had heard a story like mine,” she says. “I felt so alone, so ashamed; it made me feel less-than. I wanted [homeless kids] to hear my story not because there’s anything so special about my story but because of how common it is.”

Recently, Johnson-Huston began to feel like there was something else she could do to make a difference. She shared her idea of an app with some homeless organizations she volunteered for, and found they just didn’t have the infrastructure to take on such a project. (Currently, she’s on the advisory board of the Career Wardrobe and People’s Emergency Center. She was previously on the Board of Trustees for Project HOME, the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and West Philadelphia Alliance for Children.)

With her husband, Shawn Huston—whom she met online during her last year of law school— Johnson-Huston kicked in thousands of dollars to hire a developer and create the app last summer. (The couple won’t disclose the full amount.) “I take a look at these issues and think, Why not me? Why can’t I solve them?” she says.

Donafy is free to download and use for both consumers and the charities, and Johnson-Huston says their small team will keep in touch with Philly’s organizations to maintain up-to-date records. The Donafy app is built in such a way that, in the future, they could take it to other cities where homelessness is a problem, as well.

For now, she’s just excited to see what it can do in Philadelphia, with a homeless population of more than 3,300, according to the 2015 Point-in-Time count organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The city has given so much to me—allowed me to get an education, have a home and start a business,” Johnson-Huston says. “This project is my give-back to the city.”

 

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