Around this time last year, Jennifer Bryden, a mother of three boys, thought she had finally found employment.

“I was kind of excited that I found a job,” Bryden said. “It was my first year being sober and clean, and it was in November and right before Christmas.”

That job lasted about a week and a half, until her background check came through. She and her boys had been homeless; she had been out of work and a substance abuser. Bryden turned to a GAIN office for assistance.

The GAIN program provides employment-related services to CalWORKs participants to help them find a job, keep their job, and move on to higher-paying jobs, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.

Bryden said she told the case worker that she just wanted to work and wanted to know if there was anything that would help her do that.

It was then that she learned about the Center for Living and Learning (CLL). The San Fernando Valley organization prepares individuals transitioning from rehabilitation, or with other barriers to employment, to enter the workforce and become contributing members of society.

The organization was founded in 2001 and started with a national car-donation program. Many of the people that come to CLL start off in the call center, handling paperwork, scheduling of towing companies, auction companies and tax requests, said Maria Alexander, executive director of CLL.

Bryden did not know at the time that the questions asked of her during her interview at CLL would qualify her for LA:RISE — Los Angeles Regional Initiative for Social Enterprise, a program that provides employment and other services for those hardest to employ.

Four years ago, the city of Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department joined with REDF to create LA:RISE. REDF, founded in 1997 by George R. Roberts, funds social enterprises and helps scale them.

Social enterprises are those entities with a clear mission to take their profits and invest them in helping people, and REDF's partner organizations include Chrysalis, the Downtown Women’s Center and the Center for Living and Learning, among many others. In addition to transitional jobs, wrap-around services help people stabilize their lives and succeed.

“Amidst the homeless crisis, there was the realization that the workforce system isn't set up to deal with people with all these barriers, including mental health, incarceration and all issues related to homelessness,” said Greg Ericksen, REDF associate director of regional partnerships.

“Our main focus is employment and removing barriers to finding employment,” Ericksen said. “We help transition people into full-time jobs and a career path. Ultimately, the goal is to become self-sufficient.”

To date, more than 1,700 program participants have secured subsidized employment, and over 570 participants have secured permanent employment, according to REDF’s website for LA:RISE. It is funded by the city General Fund, Measure H money and workforce funding.

Ericksen stresses that employment is key.

“It’s great to get housing but at some point people need to become self-sufficient and need employment,” he said.

Bryden, who started working in the CLL call center, recently transitioned to a new role. She is now a community health worker, which she described as a whole-person care program. In this role, her experience with homelessness, incarceration and substance abuse was a positive.

“I’m dealing with people facing the same barriers I faced and guiding them through the process,” she said. “It’s something I’ve never done before but, now that I got into it, I love it.”

With new job skills, Bryden, 37, said she can go on and do other things but is 100 percent certain she wants to keep doing what she is doing.

“With homelessness being such a big problem, especially in California, there are so many opportunities for the type of work that I do. … I love it, it’s opened up a whole new door for me,” Bryden said. “A year ago I would have read the job description and thought, ‘No way.’ I love helping people who face the same things I have faced.”

Bryden said she had not heard about LA:RISE before her interview at CLL.

“I just went to GAIN, I just needed someone to give me a chance,” she said, her voice cracking. “And through CLL and LA:RISE, I was not just given a chance but so many more tools and experience.”

She looks back on her interview and the LA:RISE questions she was hesitant to answer. Conventional job-search wisdom is to disclose as little as possible because a background like hers is not ideal for most employers.

But she was accepted for what she is doing now, not what she had done in the past, she said.

She added: “It all worked out in the most perfect time.”

LA Weekly