Written by Scott Keyes
Getting a job can be difficult for anyone in our nation’s ongoing employment slump. For every job opening, there are currently more than three unemployed people looking for work. And those already-difficult odds are significantly exacerbated for job applicants who can’t afford a home.
“If you’ve been homeless and have a gap on your resume, people don’t give you a chance,” Seth Kelley, co-founder of RedTail Coffee in Fort Collins, told ThinkProgress by phone. “It’s a cycle that’s really hard to shake.”
That’s why Seth, along with his wife Kelly, opened RedTail Coffee in May: to provide job opportunities to homeless and low-income applicants.
The coffee shop is located alongside a new housing development that’s being built for homeless and low-income tenants called Red Tail Ponds. The Kelleys had attended a neighborhood meeting earlier this year and were surprised to find people upset at the idea of low-income housing being built in the area.
Rather than tell their neighbors why they shouldn’t fear poor people, the Kelleys set out to show them. Opening a coffee shop, Seth explained, would be an opportunity to “challenge neighbors to see the people living in those projects as their baristas, their person who served them coffee every morning.”
Though the Kelleys had never run a coffee shop before, they saw this as an opportunity not only to start a business, but to do good in the process. They brought on two experienced baristas to help smooth the process and one employee who is currently homeless and preferred not to be named. After just a few weeks training, RedTail coffee opened its doors in May.
“It’s been a very positive experience thus far,” Seth said. “It’s definitely opening up the eyes of people who live in the area.”
For some of the critics at that neighborhood meeting, “It challenges the idea that people who are homeless are lazy or just aren’t working hard enough,” he said. And Seth was effusive in his praise of his homeless employee. “He’s an incredible guy. You would never know he was homeless. He used to be an editor for novels, brilliant guy.”
He also works incredibly hard. Every morning, for instance, he has to wait in line at the shelter to get a shower, which needs to be done early enough to grab breakfast, which has to be done early enough to catch the bus across town in order to get to work on time. “It takes a tremendous amount of work, way more than the average person, just to get out of homelessness,” Seth noted.
It’s also been a learning experience for the Kelleys and RedTail’s other employees. The employee who is homeless faces major challenges in his life that others don’t. Understanding them, and being supportive in the process, has been key to making the situation work. “It’s been a big learning curve for us all, but we’ve grown through the process,” said Seth.
RedTail is continuing to hire in the fall as it ramps up its operations. In addition to its one current homeless employee, the coffee shop’s website notes that new employees are hired “exclusively from the population served in the Red Tail Ponds project.” And interest has been high among potential applicants. This past Saturday, in fact, one homeless man double-checked with the barista that this was real and the shop actually wanted to hire people like him. “Nobody tries to hire homeless people,” he said.
The data agree. A recent survey of homeless individuals in Washington D.C., for instance, found that more than 70 percent had experienced discrimination from private businesses, and this was often as patrons, much less as potential applicants. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), after spending a day shadowing a homeless man in Connecticut, summed up the catch-22: “He can’t get a job without a permanent address and can’t get a permanent address without a job.”
Even with its altruistic motives, the Kelleys are still running a for-profit business, and doing a remarkable job in the process. Just three months in, RedTail Coffee has already accomplished a highly unusual feat for any new start-up: it’s turned a profit. Even as homeless people face steep challenges from potential employers, the Kelleys are showing that it can actually pay well to do good.
This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock