A lot of outreach to the homeless and disadvantaged meets urgent needs: food, clothing, shelter. Breaking the cycle of dependency is harder.
The Christian Outreach Center of Baton Rouge has found a way for some of those it serves.
For the past year and a half, the ministry supported by four downtown churches (First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First United Methodist and St. Joseph Cathedral) has connected its clients with jobs. These day labor opportunities don’t guarantee permanent employment, but they’ve provided enough impetus for 38 men and women to get into full-time work.
“We really want to make a substantive difference,” said the Rev. Brian Sleeth, COC director. “We don’t want to accept the cycles. We want to see ourselves as cycle-breakers.”
With that in mind, Sleeth met with J. Douglas Leftwich a couple of years ago. Then employed by Louisiana Industries for the Disabled, Leftwich had an idea to remove some obstacles that keep people from getting jobs, while providing employers with a reliable source of temporary labor.
Sleeth liked it, and the COC board signed on in mid-2014. Christian Outreach Transitional Employment Services began.
COTES is in touch with several businesses and finds out how many workers they need each day. COTES contacts unemployed clients who are living at home, in shelters or halfway houses to fill those positions, and provides transportation to and from the job sites.
Each worker receives a lunch packed by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Equipment, such as hard hats, steel-toed boots and safety glasses, are provided to those who need them.
“The only thing a client has to do is come in here with the right attitude and a willingness to go to work, and we kind of take it from there,” Leftwich said. “We take the pressure off of them for the temporary job.”
The rides may be the biggest part of the equation.
“Without transportation, it’s hard to go out and look for a job,” Leftwich said. “It doesn’t matter what your skills are. If your skills are on the south side of town and the job is on the far north side of town and you don’t have transportation. CATS is not going to get you there. I think we all can agree on that.”
The employers get workers who are rested — COTES doesn’t accept those who have spent the night on the streets — and ready to work. COTES also handles the payroll, taxes, liability insurance and workman’s compensation expense for the workers, which simplifies things for the companies.
The first big client to come on board was the Belk department store in Denham Springs in the run-up to its grand opening in 2014. Cangelosi Ward, MAPP and Buquet & LeBlanc construction companies, Green Seasons lawn care and Clear Edge Glass also have provided frequent job opportunities.
Some of the workers had been homeless. Some have been in prison, which made it harder to get hired. Arthur Biagas, 52, said both contributed to his problems before he found COTES. He ended up working full-time for Green Seasons during warm weather and is interviewing for other jobs now.
“Mr. Douglas assisted me with the jobs and encouraged not just me but all the guys over there to keep a job and do better,” Biagas said. “We have to make up in our mind to want to do better. We have to have God in our life in every direction. God is the center of my life.”
Albert Stewart, 45, also had been incarcerated. He was suspicious at first when his mother told him about COTES, but he checked it out. He now works fulltime for Clear Edge Glass.
“It’s not a good program. It’s a great program,” he said. “There’s a difference. They’re more into helping people. Temp services like to trap you in those long contracts.”
COTES is not the Christian Outreach Center’s only work-oriented program. It offers Jobs for Life, which teaches interviewing skills, resume writing, goal-setting, how to look for a job and handle job situations. The eight-week program has 18 graduates so far, and the center is negotiating to have it taught in prisons to give those being released a jump-start on finding work.
All of this, Sleeth said, is because the center rejects the that vicious cycles can’t be broken.
“We have a relationship with our clients,” he said. “We know them. We know them by name. We try to befriend them to a certain extent. We’re walking alongside them. We’re not condescending toward them. We’re not treating anybody like they’re stupid or incapable. We’re their cheering section.”