USC

Nonprofit helping LA’s neediest finds it, too, needs assistance

 

Amid the most profound and startling economic downturn in recent memory, with major banks and businesses going under and waves of layoffs sweeping through almost every sector, one South Los Angeles business is seeing more clients than ever.

The clients are flocking in droves from Skid Row and other parts of South Los Angeles to the small office building on the corner of Fifth Street and Main Street.

“Clients,” as non-profit Chrysalis calls those who seek its aid, are low-income and often homeless individuals who look to the organization for help in finding jobs. But as the economy’s state worsens, the organization’s ease in finding its clients work—and the type of people seeking those jobs—is changing.

For years, the core of Chrysalis’ clientele consisted of Skid Row squatters, but now staff members say they are seeing clients who were only recently evicted due to apartment buildings that have gone into foreclosure. Others have been laid off in the onslaught of job cuts this year.

Since the worst of the nation’s economic woes have taken effect, the number of clients seeking help finding jobs has skyrocketed. This year alone, Chrysalis reported a 14 percent increase in the number of people seeking help compared to last year.

Fewer jobs harder to find


“One woman came in who lost her condo,” said Michael Graff-Weisner, Vice President of Client Services. “We’re used to seeing people who walk in off the street, but now were seeing people who have been foreclosed on.”

The U.S. Department of Labor shows that California is tied for third in unemployment rates nationwide at 7.7 percent. Los Angeles has seen its own unemployment rate rise more than two and a half percent this year, one of the higher increases in the country.

For an organization tasked with helping place at-risk people into the job market, a gain in clientele may just mean a little more work for Chrysalis’ staff. But Graff-Weisner said there’s another problem.

“It is taking a lot longer to place people in jobs than we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It’s taking us on average about 48 days to find someone a job, which is a lot longer than it used to take.”

At other times in the non-profit’s history, it has taken an average of half that time to find someone a job. But the staff maintains that motivated clients can still find jobs as easily as before.

“It’s about wanting to get off the street and saying, ‘I’m done with it,’” said Linda Wallace, a Chrysalis retention manager.

That’s what happened to Thomas Tophia, who after more than 20 years of drug abuse and gang involvement is now a full-time substance abuse counselor at the Phoenix House rehabilitation program. Tophia spent more than 12 years in prison, and had given up hope of finding a job -- until he came to Chrysalis.

“There is no question about it, I would still be on the street if it wasn’t for Chrysalis,” said Tophia, standing in a tailored suit in front of a banquet hall of wealthy donors at an annual Chrysalis fundraiser. “Now I’m working full-time and am engaged to be married.”

Tophia is currently undergoing training to become a certified addiction specialist, though he started out at Chrysalis Enterprise’s Chefmakers.

At Chrysalis, the top sectors for job placement at their downtown office are warehousing, maintenance and janitorial work, construction, general labor and retail—all of which have experienced difficulties in the recent year. The office in Santa Monica offers similar job placements.

Neediest hit hardest by economy


Each year, Chrysalis gears up for an influx of temporary retail positions around the holidays offered to clients from businesses like Macys, the Santa Monica Promenade and the Farmer’s Market.

But with the retail industry bracing for what is expected to be the worst holiday shopping season in decades, Chrysalis is expecting a substantial drop in the amount of clients it will get hired this year around the holidays.

“There’s still some time before we start talking to our regular customers about placing our clients, but my assumption is, we’re not going to be able to place as many,” Graff-Weisner said. “I imagine, sadly, that the trend we’re going to see this holiday season is going to carry with us for a while. I don’t see it becoming easier to find jobs for quite some time.”

Last year, 1,545 individuals were successfully employed with the help of Chrysalis – 59 percent in an outside position and 41 percent through Chrysalis Enterprises, a transitional job program, in which Chrysalis actually employs the client, allowing the client to work for one of the many public works contracts awarded the non-profit, while gaining the skills needed for outside employment.

While Chrysalis hopes to achieve the same success this year, the organization’s executives are unsure.

Chrysalis’ challenging future


There’s even another aspect to the hardship Chrysalis faces this year. As a non-profit, almost all of its spending power comes from donations, usually from businesses.

But according to Chrysalis officials, people and business aren’t able to give like they used to. The average cost of the program is $2,300 per client each year, and while that is less than what most government programs cost, it’s still a significant expense.

Alan Long, President of Sotheby’s International Realty for Southern California, donated personal funds to Chrysalis three years ago for the construction of a new building. He also encouraged Sotheby’s to contribute thousands each year for a 5K/10K race through downtown to promote awareness of homelessness problems.

“This year they told me we just couldn’t do it,” said Long. “When the race got pushed from one year to another, and our company’s books turned over, I knew it would probably be difficult to find that kind of funding. Sure enough, we had to sideline the race for a little while.”

The success or failure of Chrysalis in the coming months and years may prove to be an informal economic indicator, detailing the strength and weakness of the South Los Angeles job market, unemployment rate, and homelessness in the region.

But in this tough economy, where more people are finding themselves without jobs and fewer companies are hiring, it goes without saying that staff members at Chrysalis have their work cut out for them.