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With unemployment high in South LA, one nonprofit helps locals overcome roadblocks

In South Los Angeles, where unemployment has remained stubbornly higher than the state average, a local nonprofit is helping job seekers find work by helping them over the most common hurdles to employment.

Los Angeles Trade Tech College's WorkSource Center caters to people living in Vernon-Central, the eastern part of South L.A, where unemployment has been reported to be as high as 15 percent in recent months.

The center bills itself as a place that clears the many roadblocks that keep low-income job seekers from landing a job by providing them things like professional clothing, a typed resume and construction tools. 

The center opened last November as a one-stop shop for people who need jobs, training and sometimes even basics like clothing and food. It was funded by a $1.1 million grant from the City of Los Angeles. Some of those city funds came from the U.S. Department of Labor through the Workforce Investment Act. 

It's one of 17 centers that provide these kinds of services in the Los Angeles area, and it occupies sprawling digs at the college.

Job seekers take online classes, and complete resumes and job applications at the center's computer terminals. Private meeting rooms are available for job interviews. The center will host a job fair on May 7. 

Carlon Manuel, who works at the WorkSource center, said many of the people who come for help are homeless and hungry.

"We can help them find housing, food banks, rental assistance," Manuel said, standing in a large closet full of donated suits, ties, dress shoes and business-casual sweaters. "We can give you everything but underwear and a T-shirt and socks. The underwear, T-shirts and socks you work on your own."

Manuel's colleague, John Wilson, added: "We've put gas in someone's car so they could get to an interview."

Construction apprenticeship

On a recent Thursday, Manuel, Wilson and other staffers at the center helped a group of men sign up for a construction apprenticeship program. Some were military veterans. Others were what Manuel called "veterans of the streets," who were referred to the center by representatives at Homeboy Industries, a local nonprofit that helps current and former gang members.

Applications and training are the first steps for job seekers. As they near the end of that process, and are at the cusp of getting hired, other needs can get in the way. Construction work might require tools and boots that the employer doesn't pay for. The same goes for culinary knives for line cooks in restaurants. If the aspiring worker doesn't have the cash to cover those items, the center tries to find a way.  

"If someone doesn’t have the resources, it makes it more difficult for them to secure a job," says Kirsten Grimm, the deputy director of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, a co-sponsor of the WorkSource center. "When there’s competition for jobs, you want to be the cream of the crop when you present to the employer."

Early this year, the WorkSource center helped 54-year old David Alarcon get work on a demolition site at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. He couldn’t pay the $800 initiation fee to the Laborers Union. The Work Source staff found a donor to pay half, and Alarcon is paying the rest in installments out of his paychecks. 
"I didn’t have nothing," Alarcon says, remembering when the chance to work almost slipped past him. "I only had like 20 bucks left from this GR I was receiving every month." 
“GR" stands for General Relief, which amounts to a couple hundred dollars per month from the county. The money goes to people who have no resources for basic living expenses. Alarcon no longer needs this aid from the county. He’s a union apprentice, earning $19 per hour on demolition sites or assisting in test drilling for Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX Line.  

Alarcon lives with his aunt and uncle in the South Los Angeles census district known as Florence-Graham, where the March unemployment rate was 7.9 percent, compared to the state's 6.5 percent. Alarcon was born and raised in this area. He was just 4 years old when the Watts Riots broke out 50 years ago.

"I remember just seeing a dark cloud of smoke in the sky. People were panicked," Alarcon said. "My mother told me, 'Get in the house! Get in the house!'" 
As a young man, he fell prey to what plagued the area after the riots, especially drugs. He’s been in and out of prison for possession, sale and use.

"The neighborhood just brought me there at the time: an easy way to make money," he says. "Finally, I just came to a point where I said, you know what, I gotta stop. This can’t last. This can’t be me forever. I’m done."

While on probation after his last trip to prison, he enrolled at L.A. Trade Tech and earned an associate's degree in carpentry. 

Culinary arts

Of course, the WorkSource center serves more than people overcoming difficult histories. Twenty-year-old Antoinette Goodall-Golden is in her final semester at L.A. Trade Tech, finishing a degree in culinary arts. When the center opened, she started showing up every day between classes. 

"Sometimes I’m here until they close because I’m just that amped up about looking for a job," says Goodall-Golden, who lives in Compton and says she's taken classes on resume writing, interviewing and dressing for the interview.

She wants to be an executive chef and run her own food truck one day. She checks in regularly with her career coach at the center, Martha Leyva, who connects her with job opportunities. Goodall-Golden landed an entry-level job at a restaurant in Hollywood, but realized it was too far to go each day while going to school. 

"You know the trains and buses run slow, and you’re on a time schedule," she said. "You’ll be at work late, then you’ll get that notice:  You know, you’re fired. So it’s all about the distance."

She is refocusing her search on new eateries at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Kirsten Grimm of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development wasn't surprised at all to hear of Goodall-Golden's challenges. 

"A lot of the folks that we serve are relying on public transit," she says "Depending on the hours she might be to arrive at her job, she would probably have multiple transfers on the bus, and Hollywood might just be too long of a commute."  

The WorkSource Center is one prong of her nonprofit’s stated mission to change lives in its South L.A. neighborhood. 

"It’s absolutely true that unemployment rates are high, poverty is high. We’ve got too many folks that don’t have a high school diploma, but there’s also another side to it," Grimm says. "There's also people who are talented, energetic, and looking for work."

This story is part of a collaboration investigating social change in South L.A. 50 years after the Watts Riots. The project is coordinated by USC Annenberg.