Maccao Peoples is a cheerful man, brightly engaging, with worn hands and an easy, if slightly wary smile. Under the circumstances, the cheer is more surprising than the wariness: Peoples has spent the better part of his 50 years in and out of prison, mostly for small stuff, most of it drug-related. He'd get in trouble, get arrested, do some time, be released, fall into old habits, get in trouble again. What he couldn't get was what he thought might break this pattern: a job.
Then in May 2010, soon after his release from the California State Prison of Los Angeles County in Lancaster, he discovered Chrysalis. A Los Angeles-based nonprofit with facilities in Santa Monica, Pacoima and on the edge of skid row, Chrysalis is neither a government relief program nor a place that offers shelter or meals; it is devoted, entirely and inspiringly, to putting people to work, especially those who need serious help.
Because of Chrysalis' singular emphasis on jobs, the group has appeal across the political spectrum. It is weaning people from public relief and adding them to tax rolls, something any conservative can applaud. But in accomplishing that goal, it is also helping build confidence and hope in lives where precious little of those things existed.
The load on Chrysalis has risen steeply as the economy has collapsed, The organization saw a 60% increase in the demand for its services in 2009 and 2010. It leveled off a bit in 2011, but pleading clients still pour into its offices, many ill-equipped to find work in any job market, much less in one where competition is so stiff. Much of what Chrysalis teaches, says President Mark Loranger, are "soft skills," how to get along with colleagues, the importance of getting to work on time and the need to be presentable in an office. The organization even supplies clothing, so that clients can arrive for interviews in coats and ties or neat blouses rather than T-shirts and jeans.
In 2010, in the midst of a brutally bad economy, Chrysalis found jobs for 1,500 clients.
At the center on a couple recent mornings, the waiting room was full and every computer terminal was taken. Clients were learning to write resumes and signing up for services. In tiny cubicles, counselors met individually with clients, trying to connect them with jobs. Chrysalis owns two small businesses — one that does street cleaning, another that provides temporary staffing. Together, those two entities employ more than 150 people at any given time and generate about $4.5 million a year. And the agency also works with many other employers.
The hum of the center's operations is interrupted every so often by good news: Every time a client lands a job, the staff rings a loud bell. All work comes to a halt so that the client can explain the job he or she will be doing and how it came to be. Clients and staff cheer and applaud; for some clients, it is the first time they have ever heard the sound of applause directed at them.
Peoples says that when he arrived at Chrysalis, the staff "saw how discouraged I was." But he completed his two-week orientation, learned some basic computer skills and interview techniques and was offered a job cleaning streets. His first day, he was supposed to be there by 7 a.m. He arrived at 6:30: "I wanted to show them that I wanted to work."
He did. He moved furniture for a Santa Monica hotel, was hired to do cleanup work after a rave ("It's some kind of festival," he says) and eventually got assigned to street sweeping four days a week, eight hours a day downtown. He cleaned newsstands and tidied up bus stops. He enjoyed the routine — and the paycheck.
After nine months of solid work, Peoples landed another job, working as a janitor at a distribution center in the City of Commerce. It's hard to get there — he doesn't have a car — so Chrysalis helps out by giving him vouchers for a cab service to connect him from the closest bus stop to the warehouse. Peoples is making about $900 a month, after taxes. It's enough to pay his rent and keep him afloat. And after making 18 cents an hour working in prison, it seems like a fortune.
It takes some people two or three chances to get their lives in order, Peoples observes. He recognizes that chances are precious and that, thanks to Chrysalis, he has one now. "I'm not going to mess up," he promises.