HOLLYWOOD — While Los Angeles struggles to solve its homeless epidemic, a local nonprofit has been quietly helping down-on-their-luck men and women get off the streets and into an apartment and a full-time job for the last 23 years.
On March 3, Food on Foot reached a milestone of feeding 180 homeless people every week for 1,200 consecutive Sundays in the parking lot behind the LGBT Center at 1625 N. Schrader Blvd.
Yet the feedings are not a “handout but a hand up” program, the group contends. Some 50 volunteers explained to homeless in the food line how they can leave the streets through its Work For Food program.
“Our goal is to get homeless folks regular jobs, an apartment and help them rebuild their lives, and their self-esteem,” said Jay Goldinger, who launched Food on Foot in March 1996. “We’ve found this will help them stay off the streets when life gets tough and, let’s face it, life is tough.
“Everyday people become homeless after some unexpected and overwhelming situation that’s often beyond their control,” he added. “They lose their job, become sick and medical bills pile up, a close loved one dies or leaves and they turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. They spiral down and lose their home. It’s crushing.”
A former financial executive, Goldinger said people deserve a second chance, a hand up when they’re down, regardless of circumstances.
“Those people who are committed to turning their lives around, know they have to work for it,” he said. “We give them that opportunity.”
Work for Food is a two-phase program. In the first phase, the homeless are assigned to a weekly cleaning route where they pick up trash in Hollywood’s streets and parking lots. They are paid in food and retail gift cards. They also meet with Food on Foot program directors for mock job interview training, how to manage money and handle crises.
Goldinger claims the first phase has a dual purpose: “strengthening their confidence building life skills and giving back to their community.”
Typically, a homeless person enters the second phase of the program after 20 weeks on the work crews. Food on Foot finds them a full time job at $12 to $16 an hour, moves them into their own fully furnished apartment and helps them save part of their earnings.
“We provide them with everything they need to survive and be productive in their new job,” Goldinger said. This includes rent and furniture for their new apartment, monthly bus passes, food gift cards, haircuts, eyeglasses and any “reasonable resource” they may need.
When a Food on Foot participant accumulates $5,000 in paycheck savings from their new job, they graduate.
But does rebuilding their life skills work long term?
Goldinger claims the Work for Food program has an 80 percent success rate. Eight out 10 people who graduate are still fully employed and housed in their own apartment one year later.
Graduates themselves say the program has worked for them.
Roderick Norseweather, 46, said his life changed when his mom was diagnosed with cancer, died, and he lost the family house.
“Hard times hit and my life was going downhill,” he said. “I soon found myself homeless and living underneath an abandoned truck in Hollywood.”
Norseweather says he saw a Food on Foot flyer, started attending the feedings and joined a work crew cleaning parking lots.
“After four months, they placed me in a job at Pali House, a restaurant in West Hollywood and I got an apartment. For me, it was like a homeless door closed and a working door opened.”
Lisa Aseballos of Los Angeles says she was “close to being homeless” after her grandfather died and eventually “wound up on the streets for four months, drinking and doing drugs just to cope” while she was undergoing a transgender transformation.
She discovered Food on Foot while visiting the LGBT Center for hormone therapy and “thought it was too good to be true.”
“They treated me nicely, called me my preferred name and got me a job as an outreach specialist at the Trans Latino Coalition,” she said. “Two months later, I was promoted with a raise.
“By giving me an opportunity and skill-building tools, I was able to regain my self confidence during hard times but it didn’t happen overnight.”
Since its formation, Food on Foot has never taken a dime in government support or taxpayer money, said its founder. It is entirely self-funded by private citizens, corporations and foundations.
“It’s hasn’t been an easy road but it’s been exciting and rewarding,” Goldinger said.
So far the program has found full-time jobs and housing for over 400 people including nine people this year alone. “Not a huge number,” he concedes, “and it won’t solve L.A.’s homeless problem. But we’re making progress, rebuilding one life at a time, and that’s huge.”