The Local Globalists Communities

How One Nonprofit Integrates the Homeless Back Into Society

by Alessandra Rizzotti

November 10, 2015

This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality. 

Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

In 1984, John Dillon was 22 years old and a year out of college, volunteering with Catholic Charities in the Jesuit Volunteer Core. After a year of service on Skid Row in Los Angeles, he decided he wanted to start his own nonprofit to serve the homeless. In the beginning stages, he formed the nonprofit Chrysalis as a food and clothing distributor, but soon realized that he was giving out Band-Aids rather than solving long-term problems. He soon pivoted his focus to employment services for low-income, formerly incarcerated, and homeless populations, with the philosophy that with steady jobs, people could find long-term self-sufficiency. Named after the transitional state in which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the nonprofit serves as a protective cocoon that makes transformation possible.

Although Dillon eventually ended up moving back to the East Coast to become an investor in real estate, he kept his organization running with the guidance of CEO Mark Loranger. For 13 years, Loranger worked at IBM, then became an entrepreneur for 10 years. After selling his company, he felt that he wanted to make more of an impact in society, serving low-income populations. After eight years at Chrysalis, Loranger will have helped over 2,000 homeless people get employed this year alone. With an estimated 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles and high rates of poverty, Chrysalis is making a small, hyperlocal impact, one that has not only connected clients to new opportunities, but also reconnected them to their families. Loranger’s priority with Chrysalis is to help clients with their résumés, interview skills, and job skills. Beneath all that work is the core value of treating each human being with dignity and respect.

“The challenge for most clients is that this program is completely voluntary, self-motivated, and self-directed, so it’s daunting. People have to walk in with the mindset that they’re ready to change and find work. Society may have turned its back on them a few times, so we are there to offer support and figure out what work they can and want to do. I really give these clients credit for coming back because it takes courage,” Loranger says.

The other challenge for Chrysalis is finding employers who are open to working with people who have criminal or transient backgrounds. Although Chrysalis doesn’t serve as an intermediary between the clients and potential employers, there are some cases in which they’ve had to explain strategies and ways of handling challenges that both employers and employees might face. But overall, they try to empower both the employee and the employer to find solutions within themselves. “We work with small local businesses and we make personal connections with the owners, humanizing homelessness by explaining that our people are real people with real families and real issues, and they are hard workers who just need a hand up, not a handout,” Loranger says.

Getting a job is a means to an end for clients at Chrysalis. With income, they can reintegrate into society, which is another long process that involves Chrysalis’ follow-up in three, six, and nine-month increments after employment. Last March the formerly incarcerated Charles Johnson, for example, was one of the people who was able to take part in Chrysalis’ tradition of ringing an employment bell in the organization’s lobby. He stood up to tell the office of his new job as a desk clerk at Skid Row Housing Trust, explained what it took to get there, and gave advice to others who were still searching. As someone who had a bright future ahead of him with a basketball scholarship at Cal Poly Pomona, Johnson thought he had a shot at joining the Golden State Warriors after college. When he wasn’t picked, he turned to gang culture, where he felt welcome.

Johnson’s story of poverty, low self-esteem, and the need to feel connected to a community is common among clients at Chrysalis. Like Johnson, Chrysalis client Eunice Boynton let her negative circumstances get in the way of a fulfilling and productive life. After her husband died of cancer, she turned to drugs and quickly lost everything she had. Chrysalis gave her the confidence to find housing and turn her setbacks into a role as manager at the Ward Hotel. Darius Coffey had spent his childhood in the foster care system and never felt wanted until he joined a gang. But when Chrysalis came into his life, he found the hope he needed to get on track, build a family, and secure employment as a food services coordinator at SRO Housing Corporation. These success stories are examples of the direct impact Chrysalis has on the Los Angeles homeless and low-income community, but Loranger stresses that the bigger issue they are trying to solve is poverty alleviation and the reintegration of homeless and formerly incarcerated people into society.

Chrysalis puts its program into action by maintaining labor-intensive social enterprises that employ its clients. These include the street-cleaning, graffiti removal, and pressure-washing service Chrysalis Works, which operates in the Business Improvement, Arts, and Fashion Districts. The staffing business Chrysalis Enterprises provides employees for janitorial and front-desk jobs at 15 institutions, including the Skid Row Housing Trust. Through these social enterprises, Chrysalis learns how to improve its job training classes, and clients learn how to process their paychecks, develop coworker relationships, and earn vocational skills.

“There’s a significant need for our services throughout the country, and the question is, how do we share our nonprofit and social enterprise models worldwide without distracting from what we do hyperlocally in Los Angeles?” Loranger says. “It’s a balancing act, because we don’t want to dilute what we’re doing here. We provide advice and counsel to programs nationwide, but I don’t presume to know what the needs are in communities like Detroit or Milwaukee, for example, so maybe we can advise on case management and forming social enterprises there without having to learn all the nuances of those cities.”

In 15 years, Loranger hopes to turn the tide on employer attitudes, erasing stigmas and the idea that hiring a homeless or formerly incarcerated individual is too risky. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that our criminal justice system is not sustainable, and if we can open employers up to hiring people with blemishes on their records, there will be less chances of those people going back to jail,” he says. Loranger also sees a future in which people’s perception of homelessness will shift, based on the humanizing storytelling Chrysalis does through its fundraisers, blogs, social media profiles, and newsletters.

Although Chrysalis is still figuring out how to replicate its nonprofit and social enterprise models nationwide and eventually worldwide, they’re consistently focused on their main mission to help low-income, homeless, and formerly incarcerated people find and retain decent work, with the overall goal of empowering them to reconnect with their families and society. “If we dream hard, the real impact isn’t the jobs we’re helping our clients find,” Loranger says. “It’s the dignity, respect, and familial connections that are formed when someone is gainfully employed. It’s massively reintegrating people into society. It’s making sure that society doesn’t have to carry our clients through welfare, but rather empower them to provide for themselves and their families.”

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

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How One Nonprofit Integrates the Homeless Back Into Society