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Three-Way Assault: Work, Counseling and Training : Denver Businesses, Agencies Stress Jobs for Homeless

Associated Press

Less than a year ago, Pete Shields had $5 to his name, a drinking problem and nothing but the sky to sleep under. He had spent 20 years living on the street.

Shields, 46, now has more than $400 in the bank, an apartment and a 40-hour-a-week job--and at more than the minimum wage.

“I don’t figure I’ve done too bad,” he said the other day as he took a breather from his work at Osage Resource Recovery Inc., which hires only homeless or indigent people.

The company, which handles promotional mailings, is part of Osage Initiatives, a combination of public and private concerns formed last year to try a new approach to the problem of homelessness.

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Osage has placed about 90 homeless people in jobs with Denver-area businesses and has opened about 25 new jobs through its own business ventures, such as ORRI, which hired Shields.

ORRI is Osage’s first wholly owned business, but it also works with companies in “allied ventures” to provide other jobs. Such ventures include the maintenance company Artisan Initiatives, Dominion Services asbestos removal company, and a cafeteria on Osage’s premises that trains people for work in the food services.

Training and Child Care

Osage also houses five community agencies that offer job training and counseling and a day-care center.

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ORRI pays a minimum of $4.50 an hour, plus benefits, and said it remains competitive because of low overhead costs. Osage’s complex of renovated buildings is near the railroad tracks west of downtown Denver.

“It demonstrates that you can have a social conscience and be a capitalist all at once,” Marcia Malone, head of business development at Osage, said. She said many firms have responded favorably to doing business with the company.

“Businesses like what we’re doing because we’re doing it without federal funds.”

Osage director Earl Belofsky said that more than 60% of Denver’s homeless people mainly need jobs.

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“We’re saying, ‘Don’t give us money; give us the contracts and the jobs,’ ” he said. “If we can catch (people) before they fall through the cracks, they haven’t lost their self-esteem. Most of us aren’t very far from that line.”

Most of the people Osage hires or places are referred from shelters, which screen them to make sure they are willing and able to work.

Thousands Without Homes

Each night, between 2,100 and 2,600 people sleep on the streets in Denver, according to a census the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless conducted about a year ago.

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Shields is one of about a dozen men who work in ORRI’s renovated warehouse filling an order from a local brewery. They are putting gift items into kits for a promotional mailing.

“I was just one of those people who didn’t want to settle down,” said Shields. He was married three times, but said: “I drank my way through all my marriages.”

“One day I just decided I’m about that age where I should do something and not thrash around on the street,” he said.

Shields joined an alcohol-treatment program and was directed to Osage for a job. He had some construction experience, he said, and would like to get back to that.

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“Here, I can make my way up the ladder if I use my head,” he said. “I’d like to get back into construction. I have skills. I’ve got the brain to do it if I just put my mind to it.”

Another worker in the warehouse is John Velasquez. In the two months he has been working there, Velasquez and his wife and their four young children have been able to move out of a shelter.

New Chance to Work

Velasquez had lost a job as a machine adjuster and ended up in jail for missing a court hearing on a drunk-driving charge. When he decided to sober up, he couldn’t get hired again.

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“I had gone to electrical and mechanical school and I know I’ve got some talents here,” he said. “I knocked on a lot of doors, even tried dish-washing.”

Velasquez said that Osage is teaching him new skills.

“They opened doors for hope. I’m so grateful!” he said. “When you make a mistake, it hits so hard!”

The idea for Osage developed after Jack MacAllister, chief executive officer of U S West telephone company, visited a Denver shelter and was struck by the sight of a man meticulously ironing his pants for a job interview.

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Soon after, MacAllister contacted the five agencies and began working to establish Osage. U S West donated the buildings and, along with other community businesses, put up funds for a $2.8-million loan to cover renovations. U S West also advanced $300,000 for business development and gave ORRI some of its first contracts--to repair parts of phone booths.

Belofsky said that Osage will repay the loans.

Business Volume Soaring

Malone said that ORRI made its first sale in June and had sales of $66,000 in the next six months. Then, in January alone, it took in $70,000. Malone said she is optimistic that ORRI can gross 10 times that much this year.

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“Our product is as good as anybody’s,” Belofsky said. He explained that ORRI takes care of big promotional mailings and similar projects that most companies are not set up to handle in-house.

Belofsky said that Adolph Coors Co., for instance, placed its first order with Osage for $1,800. Its second was for $42,000.

He said that companies in other cities have contacted him for advice on starting ventures similar to Osage.

“We’re in business to create jobs,” he said. “We have to make money so we can keep doing that.”

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