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One Step at a Time : Employment: A program brings together troubled young people, businesses and the government to provide work for those whose alternative might be selling crack.


On this morning, like on most others, there are not enough jobs to go around.

So 20 young adults, most of them runaways struggling to support themselves, will select, lottery style, a small strip of paper that tells them whether they'll work today.

The youths, whose average age is 18, are part of a day-labor program called Project Step operated by the nonprofit Hollywood-based L.A. Free Clinic, which provides medical and social services to people ages 12 to 23.

Now in its third year, Project Step has been enlisting the commitment of companies such as auto dealerships and law firms to provide the youths with a transition from temporary jobs to longer-term employment.

Thirty-five are enrolled in Project Step, with an equal number more on its waiting list. Approximately 20 kids show up regularly for work and three are usually turned away daily because of a lack of jobs, Project Step director Stephen Knight said.

Though the majority of Project Step's jobs are low-skilled, low-paying jobs, Knight said that for the youths any job is "a lot better than going out on the street and selling crack."

The day labor jobs have included planting trees in Hollywood and helping the Los Angeles Conservation Corps' recycling efforts. The corps hired 15 Project Step youths after the January earthquake to work 12-hour days cleaning up Hollywood and helping residents move out of their homes.

Last July, Project Step began trying to try to find longer-term jobs for the youths.

After working for four months in day-labor jobs, those youths whose lives have become more stable move on to a six-month training program at one of six companies participating in the project.

The youths working day labor jobs are paid the minimum wage; those working in the six-month training programs can make more money depending upon the kind of job and their work performance. The L.A. Free Clinic pays the employee's wages and Social Security taxes and also provides free medical care.

Universal Nissan of North Hollywood last July became the first of six companies to agree to hire workers full time after the youths complete the six-month training phase.

Youths are often living in troubled households, close to running away, Knight said. Most Project Step workers, moreover, have few jobs skills or little experience and have not completed high school, Knight added.

Knight, who has worked for the federal Job Training Partnership Act in Los Angeles, said Project Step seeks to help the youths who he believes have fallen through the cracks of government programs.

"The problem was that we (at JTPA) were finding jobs for the more skilled workers, and the kids who were homeless that needed the jobs were falling through the cracks," Knight said. "These kids have day-to-day survival needs and they don't have the time to wait two to three weeks or months for work. They'll have to resort to illegal activities if necessary."

Such was the case with Chris DeCaprio, 19, who, before joining Project Step was caught up in a world of drugs and survival sex. DeCaprio says he left his Eureka home six months ago after his alcoholic stepfather knocked out his front tooth.

When DeCaprio got off the bus at Hollywood and Vine, he called the 9-Line, a national referral agency for runaway youths, which referred him to Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teens.

DeCaprio left Covenant House after a disagreement with officials there and spent several weeks on the street before moving into another youth shelter. In between shelters and before working for Project Step, DeCaprio says he sometimes bartered sex for a place to sleep.

For four months, DeCaprio has worked in Project Step's day labor program as a receptionist at the L.A. Free Clinic's Hollywood and Beverly boulevards offices.

Approximately 655 youths have worked for Project Step since its inception. Since July, when Project Step changed its focus from temporary to long-term employment, 15 young people have found such jobs.

Knight says far more youths must be placed in long-term jobs before Project Step can be called a success.

"Where we've been unsuccessful is when, after four months of the program, a lot of kids have to be let go because we're not able to find them a more permanent job," says Knight.

Aside from Universal Nissan, the six businesses include Stroock & Stroock & Levan, a Century City law firm; Silverstein and Schiffer, a Beverly Hills accounting firm; Dean Witter in Santa Monica; Audio Rents in Hollywood, and Who's on Third restaurant in Los Angeles. Many more are needed, Knight said.

Project Step, which has a paid staff of three and two volunteers, bills administrative costs to those companies that hire workers. Project Step also receives funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies as well as money from private donors.

Knight is seeking funding to start a business that would be owned and operated by Project Step to allow the youths to learn more advanced job skills. He is proposing either a restaurant or a moving company that will be operated by Project Step youth in all phases.

"We'd be able to have all different levels of jobs and we don't have that now," Knight said. "In the restaurant for example, they would start out as dishwashers, move up to cashier, then waiter, then supervisor, then payroll, thus teaching them all aspects of running a business."

Knight says he hopes to set up such a business within two years. In the meantime, he says, Project Step continues meeting the immediate needs of the troubled youths.

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