An entrepreneurial approach to achieving lasting change
Homelessness in America is an interconnected web of society’s most pressing social challenges. Finding lasting solutions requires an understanding of the systemic issues involved, combined with a willingness to pursue innovative approaches to achieve lasting change.
Addressing homelessness requires examining the barriers to obtaining sustainable housing. These include a lack of employment opportunities for citizens returning to public life after incarceration, inadequate mental health care, and limited access to transportation. In addition, sustainable solutions must involve the ability for individuals to earn income or have a means of financial support. Housing without income requires perpetual public funding.
Big problems require bold ideas.
First Step Staffing (FSS) was created in 2007 as an out-of-the-box idea that focuses on an income first solution to homelessness. It is the nation’s largest nonprofit social enterprise staffing company, providing skills training and job placement services for clients experiencing or at-risk for homelessness. It turns the typical staffing agency business model on its head. Chair Mick Cochran describes the organization as “a social enterprise dedicated to eradicating homelessness at an individual level, providing a solution that puts clients on a path to achieving a sustainable income for those who have the courage to change their lives.”
FSS’s founder, Greg Block, had a history of entrepreneurial success that he wanted to apply to bettering his community. Block sold his successful home textiles business, American Pacific Enterprises, then focused on leading a life of service, inspired by his mother’s tireless dedication to child advocacy.
While Block knew that he wanted to dedicate himself to the greater good, he was unclear what form it would take. There was not a plan to end hunger or homelessness, or preference for any specific issue. Instead, there was a desire to find an entrepreneurial approach to solving a pervasive social issue.
To be sure, FSS CEO Amelia Nickerson said that Block was “agnostic about the issue. He just knew that wanted to give back.”
After selling his business, Block embarked on a year-long listening tour with community and nonprofit leaders around Atlanta to understand the most pressing issues they faced. Homelessness quickly stood out as one of the most challenging problems.
The focus on the individual in FSS’s work puts its clients front and center. It is the individual’s determination to succeed that ultimately makes FSS’s model a success. Providing wraparound services that include job coaching and transportation services, the organization not only provides initial access to employment opportunities but also ensures that its clients can retain their jobs.
FSS provides a bridge to opportunities that were otherwise not available to its clients. However, it is the clients alone who cross the bridge, bringing them closer to stable employment.
FSS began as a start-up staffing agency employing a modest number of people with employment barriers. In December 2015, seeking a larger scale impact, FSS raised funds to acquire the Georgia Division of Labor Guys Staffing, a for-profit staffing agency. Through this acquisition, FSS expanded the organization’s capacity to serve its target population three-fold overnight.
As the organization saw continued impact in Atlanta, the organization set its sights on expansion to a second city in 2018: Philadelphia. To secure an additional location, FSS purchased OTS Staffing, a light industrial and services staffing firm, which provided 700 initial jobs for its clients. Reinvestment Fund provided $4.85 million to FSS and partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), LISC and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to make the acquisition of OTS’ Philadelphia operations possible and provide working capital.
2019 saw Reinvestment Fund partner with Atlanta Emerging Markets, Inc. (AEMI) and Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) to work with FSS again, refinancing a maturing loan with better terms. In the same year, Reinvestment Fund also partnered with NFF, REDF Impact Investing Fund, and Dignity Health to support FSS’s expansion into Southern California, with additional support from Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties.
Following this expansion model, FSS has grown from a company with 120 individuals working each week and $2 million in revenue, to nearly 3,000 individuals working weekly and a projected $59 million in revenue in 2020.
FSS is full of success stories. Take Steven for example. In Philadelphia, FSS’s new clients know Steven as the smiling, reassuring face they see when they step off the elevator. He’s a FSS ambassador helping clients navigate the job application process.
Each day, Steven turns his own success into opportunities to help others face the circumstances he had to fight to overcome. A veteran, Steven was homeless for almost eight years, struggling with addiction issues. In 2018, he was introduced to FSS.
“Thanks to FSS Staffing, I have a second chance. I believe in myself again.”
Steven utilized the multiple support systems available to him through the organization, pausing his employment to address his addiction issues, then returning to become an important part of the team. “What makes FSS unique is that they cater to a specific social demographic, Steven said. “FSS does not discriminate. Regardless of what you look like, when you walk through the door, they help you find a job. Anyone who wants a job, can get one.”
In Los Angeles, Shaundrika, a mother of five, struggled to provide for herself despite multiple certifications in the medical field. After receiving an initial placement as a mail sorter at Pitney Bowes from FSS Staffing, Shaundrika was hired full-time. Of her experience, she said, “Thanks to FSS Staffing, I have a second chance. I believe in myself again.”
Sadly, FSS founder Block passed away in August of 2020. His friends say that Block quickly came to see the organization’s clients as heroes for their courage in the face of adversity. After receiving his cancer diagnosis in 2013, Block redoubled his work to expand the work of FSS. The focus on presenting clients with opportunities to change the trajectory of their lives remains the same as the organization’s national presence grows.
Now operating in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville, Orlando, and Greater Los Angeles, FSS’s expansion has provided the opportunity to replicate their model in diverse areas of the country to create change through connecting courageous people with opportunity. While other staffing agencies measure their success in dollars earned, FSS measures its work in the lives it impacts. Each year, more than 7,500 lives are changed due to the organization’s work across the United States.
As Nickerson recalls, Block was fond of referencing Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t make.” FSS’s clients take the first shot by reaching out to connect with what has too often been missing from their lives–a chance.