By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
Local non-profit Small Sums helped more than 500 homeless adults start new jobs last year. Their role is not to find jobs, but to help new employees get the things they need to show up ready for work on their first day.
Most of the jobs their clients take have requirements for work shoes, steel-toed boots, uniforms, union dues, tools or other gear that a homeless person would be hard pressed to buy. The men and women who come to Small Sums live in shelters, on the streets, in cars, or temporarily with friends or family. Before their first paycheck comes, there is likely little or no extra money available.
Executive Director Terre Thomas (photo right) said, “We believe that employment is a key factor in helping homeless people turn their lives around. At Small Sums, we’re able to provide timely and practical assistance in a way that few agencies can. Our clients don’t get a written job offer in the mail with two weeks’ notice. They get a phone call on Tuesday morning saying, ‘Can you start work tomorrow afternoon?’ We have to be nimble and quick to help them, and we are.”
Small Sums is located at 1222 University Ave. W., in the outlet warehouse of Cheapo Records. Their office space is donated by Al Brown, owner of Cheapo Records and a Small Sums board member.
When clients come for an intake, they meet with Direct Client Services Manager Dave Rannow. He issues a gift card for Walmart or Goodwill (both a short walk away) to help with clothing needs, assists in selecting work shoes, if needed, and issues a free one-month bus pass. The average cost for getting a new worker job-ready is less than $200.
Before their conversation begins, the client’s job offer is verified. Small Sums has a one-time limit for their services.
“We have a different relationship with our clients than most organizations,” Thomas explained, “because we’re not giving them advice or telling them what to do. The only question we have to ask is, ‘What do you need to get started?’”
“Usually when clients walk in the door,” Thomas said, “they’re tired—but they’re also excited. Small Sums exists to provide this one piece of support, and we often hear, ’Really, you’re going to give me the stuff I need to start my new job, and it’s going to be good stuff?’”
Photo left: Direct Client Services Manager Dave Rannow met with a new client. In their annual Client Follow-up Project last year, 60% of the Small Sums clients from 2015 who could be reached were in stable housing and still employed.
Small Sums has an entire room devoted just to shoes and boots: floor to ceiling, warehouse-style. Still in their original boxes, the free shoes and boots are good quality, well-constructed, and meant to last. Through an arrangement with Payless Shoes that Thomas called “leveraged buying,” Small Sums can purchase large quantities at semi-annual sales, and receive an additional 25% discount donated by the company.
As an organization, Small Sums is in the business of helping people jump over hurdles. They had their own hurdle to overcome not long ago, which Thomas called, “the Christmas Tragedy/turned New Year’s Miracle.”
“In 2015,” Thomas said, “our offices were broken into on Christmas Day. Someone came through the kitchen window and stole about $3,000 worth of stuff. I sent an email to our mailing list of 300 supporters, asking for donations to cover at least the cost of replacing the stolen bus passes. Within 10 minutes of hitting the ‘send’ button, people had donated $200. Within ten days, we had received more than $30,000—and nearly 200 new donors who were moved by the story. Coming between Christmas and New Year’s, which is often a slow news week, the media coverage was fantastic and we went into 2016 stronger than ever.”
Thomas concluded, “We estimate that there are 1,000-1,200 people in the metro area eligible for our services every year–-meaning that they’re homeless and they’ve just gotten a job. Our goal in the next three years is to double our capacity, and to be serving 1,200 people annually by the year 2020.”
Call 651-242-9441 with questions about donating to Small Sums or applying for assistance. Send an email to staff at ContactUs@SmallSums.org or visit their website at www.smallsums.org for more information, including their upcoming crowd-funding campaign which will go live on Mar. 16.