In staffing his organic-oriented Fresco Community Market in Montecito Heights early last year, Jon Murga looked for employees in an unlikely place: skid row.
He hired 11 people then and one this month through a job development program at the Los Angeles Mission. Most were trying to stay off drugs, alcohol or both as they struggled to exit the ranks of the homeless. Some were trying to put criminal convictions in the past.
To Murga, 47, it is the right thing for employers in the community to do: "It's possible to change the conversation about the homeless situation."
Still, hiring skid row's denizens is a risk that few small businesses are willing to take, said Allen Ceravolo, who runs the mission's career center.
He tries to find jobs for those who go through the program's rehabilitation process, tapping his database of as many as 100 businesses. But to employers, his folks carry the stigma of homelessness, often lack a formal education and have a spotty work history and sometimes a criminal record.
Fresco Community Market was different, though, Ceravolo said. Murga was one of the rare employers who came to the mission looking for people to hire. "He was unique because he initially wanted to work with and help the homeless," Ceravolo said.
For Sheila Curl, 54, a cashier job at Fresco was a blessing after "20 years of being lost" and ending up with a felony drug conviction.
"I thank God I came to my senses," Curl said. "Life is good."
From the outset, Murga, a home builder, envisioned a full-service grocery store with an emphasis on social responsibility. That meant a focus on organic and natural food, a return to the community in the form of charitable donations and a commitment to hire those most in need.
He said those ideals had been instilled in him over the last 10 years by his wife and business partner, architect Helena Jubany, a member of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission.
Five years ago, he said, they had sensed a recession coming and decided on the grocery store, the first of what they hope will be a small chain, as a good business to help them through economic downturns.
And letting customers know that their purchases help the community puts the business on the cutting edge, Murga said. "I believe we have the business model for tomorrow in retail," he enthused.
As part of his business plan, Murga created a charitable foundation to funnel part of his profits to local church and school programs. And he went to the Los Angeles Mission to hire workers, who now account for a quarter of his staff and earn $10 to $15 an hour.
More touchy-feely than typical business owners, Murga easily gives out hugs along with phrases from his training through self-help program Landmark Education. On how to deal with employees' difficult behavior, for instance, he would say: "When you make someone wrong, you put up barriers."
Employees from the Los Angeles Mission are familiar with self-help exhortations. They typically have dedicated more than a year to an intense residential program focusing on Bible study, getting clean and making changes that can lead to a more stable life.
"You can't necessarily take someone off the street and give them clothes and put them in a place of employment, because they're not ready at that point," Ceravolo said.
There aren't a lot of financial incentives for hiring people with a history of homelessness. Murga said his store gets a tax credit for hiring people who live in the downtown State Enterprise Zone, but his profit margin is "very small." He declined to provide figures.
Ceravolo said that about two-thirds of those in the mission's career program who get jobs have held on to them for at least a year. Only three of the initial 11 hired by Fresco have left.
The ones who remain are outstanding employees, and one has become a manager, Murga said. "There's a gratitude, a humbleness."
David Vogelsang, 48, was in and out of jail for 20-odd years as he tried to cope with "homelessness, alcohol and despair." He finally made it into the mission's job development program and, eventually, to the produce section at Fresco.
Tall and gray-haired with his long, red clerk's apron dangling past his knees, Vogelsang was initially shy about customer service. But urging customers to try a small plum or other fruit has helped him open up.
"It took me a little while to come out of my shell," he said.
Murga said the relationships his formerly homeless employees have with customers are invaluable to his business. One customer took him aside to say how wonderful his staff was, singling out each one.
"He just started naming them off," Murga said. "They were all from the L.A. Mission."