In 2012, Stanley Bracy ended up somewhere he said he never wanted to be — in jail. He was a recent transplant to Georgia, miles away from his hometown of Monroe, La.
“I wasn’t even there a month before I started going back to the life,” he said.
The U.S. Army veteran and former plant supervisor, now 52, said he became involved in “the life” after the plant at which he worked closed in 2010. That is, he became obsessed with making fast money — easy money — and started selling drugs. And it was that obsession that led to him being arrested for drug possession, he said. As soon as he got out on probation, he took that opportunity to run.
“They opened up those doors, and I was like, ‘I’m out of here.’ As soon as I touched concrete in the free world, I was out of there,” he said.
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Bracy said he never checked in with his probation officer and left for Seattle in 2015. He was eventually stopped by police while driving and extradited back to Georgia, where he ended up serving eight months in the Cobb County Adult Detention Center for breaking his probation.
When he was released in April 2016, his options seemed limited. But, he said, he never gave up.
“When I got the felony charge, the doors that were open to me were closed,” he said.
The key that helped Bracy reopen those doors turned out to be First Step: Staffing for Good — a nonprofit staffing agency whose mission is to fight homelessness and poverty in Atlanta.
“There were a lot of work readiness programs…but there weren’t really jobs at the end of them. So we decided to start First Step Staffing to create that pipeline,” said Greg Block, who founded the nonprofit in 2007.
“I think our place in the ecosystem is that we work with people who haven’t worked in maybe three years, who haven’t had an address, who may not have transportation,” he said. “We provide that first bridge back into employment. It’s transformative. These folks are really motivated to turn their lives around.”
What makes First Step different than traditional for-profit staffing agencies is that they give priority to those who may have some kind of “barriers for employment,” said Dave Shaffer, CEO.
Those barriers include homelessness, previous incarceration and struggling veterans.
“Virtually all of them have some barrier that maybe the average employer wouldn’t necessarily give them a chance. We do give them a chance,” Shaffer said.
According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ 2015 Report on Homelessness, there are more than 4,000 homeless people in the city of Atlanta. That doesn’t include those in Atlanta’s surrounding suburbs.
“If there’s a way to get people who are homeless employed, that’s a huge social gain,” Shaffer said. “The cost to society of having a person be homeless…could be as high as $40,000 a year per person.”
Providing the homeless with direct access to jobs not only gives them a sense of ownership and pride, but it also provides a direct impact to Atlanta by making them taxpaying workers.
“It doesn’t take long for the math to add up,” he added.
This time last year, Block said, the staffing agency was providing about 100 jobs a week to the recently homeless. By acquiring a for-profit staffing agency, First Step has been able to significantly scale that number by absorbing about 400 of their employees. As more “traditional” employees drop off by attrition, First Step’s core targets get priority for new job opportunities. Today, Block said, the total number of employees are about 1,000, with the average wage starting at $9.75 an hour and the employees averaging 35 hours a week. By comparison, Georgia’s minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
First Step works with 70 social service agencies to provide employees with counseling, help them with transportation if needed, and link them with jobs with the more than 100 employers in First Step’s employment network. Block said that counseling can be something as simple as having someone help a new employee map out his or her first day on MARTA, keeping them motivated or helping them resolve the normal stresses and challenges of a new job that they may not be used to handling, Block said.
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“What we find is that individuals that we do that for are very grateful and turn out to be very good employees,” he added.
Every employee is drug tested before the First Step team matches them with a potential employer. They also are randomly tested. And, Block says, First Step’s “do-not-return rate” of 5 percent — that is, having an employer request a certain employee not return — is lower than that of a traditional staffing agency. When that does happen, Block said, they counsel the employee and try to place him or her with another company. Their goal is not just to provide a job but to provide the confidence that comes along with it.
“Seeing people turn their lives around, seeing their confidence soar. You can see someone in our waiting room, not making eye contact, heads down,” Block said. “We hire them and you see them a week or 10 days later picking up their paychecks, and they’re a different person.”
That sense of pride and confidence shines through for Bracy, who recently started a new job through First Step as a forklift operator. In July, he was able to leave the group apartment he shared with seven other men and get his own apartment. In August, he was awarded employee of the month.
“I started with a $25 gift card and by God’s grace, today I have three bank accounts,” he said. “I am so blessed and so thankful for them giving me an opportunity.”