Stephen Richardson has sought work from dozens of employers since he was laid off from his building maintenance job five months ago along with the rest of the company's staff.
The South-Central Los Angeles native has courted companies from North Hollywood to Marina del Rey with no response, and temp agencies have told him they are so overrun with applications they won't even take his.
On Saturday, Richardson lined up with hundreds of others in his own neighborhood, hoping to get a job at Chesterfield Square, the largest commercial development to break ground in South-Central in more than a decade.
Home Depot and Food4Less opened their doors in July at the $75-million complex at Western and Slauson avenues. McDonald's, Starbucks, Radio Shack and the International House of Pancakes are among those soon to follow.
The development is bringing quality retail services to a neighborhood that sorely needs them, signaling a newfound interest by national chain stores in low-income minority pockets they long neglected. As the U.S. unemployment rate soars to a four-year high, the project is also offering hope to a population starved for opportunity.
The job fair attracted 500 people by midmorning, with 500 more expected by the end of the day, organizers said. The event drew everyone from a Bible-carrying family applying in concert to frustrated ex-felons who often find themselves instantly out of the running.
Richardson, whose former employer gutted its staff on one day's notice after losing a bid for a county contract, gathered a stack of applications and hoped for the best.
"It's rough, real rough," he said.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics released Friday showed that the nation's unemployment rate climbed to 4.9% in August. But for African Americans, the statistics were far worse, with 9.1% out of work.
The predominantly African American neighborhood surrounding Chesterfield Square has historically offered no exception to that trend, logging some of the city's highest unemployment rates.
The neatly landscaped shopping center--developed with suggestions from the community--eventually will employ about 600. But 250 of those jobs have already been filled. Still, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, developer Chris Hammond and Ward Economic Development Corp.'s Jackie Dupont Walker were among those on hand Saturday to offer encouragement.
"We are responsible for making sure the communities know there are jobs here, and that these companies know the best people they could hire are right here in the community," said Dupont Walker, whose organization is coordinating the job outreach. "They're ready and they're capable."
The line began forming at a tent in the parking lot as early as 7 a.m. But Julia Julian, 39, had been waiting since the predawn gray. Her neighbor was hired recently at Home Depot and tipped her off to the fair.
Formerly an in-home nurse, the soft-spoken Julian spent the last three years caring for her mother, who died in June. The prospect of looking after other terminally ill patients is too painful now, said Julian, who has also worked as a janitor and housekeeper and for a bail bond company.
Lining up next to her was Felicia Adams, 40, just two days into freedom after spending 14 months in prison for violating her parole. Rather than hide it, the former cook asked Dupont Walker point-blank whether there was a reason to stay, and got a resounding yes.
Home Depot and Food4Less officials at the event said they do not automatically rule out candidates with felony convictions.
Searching for work with a record--which Adams did before her parole violation landed her in prison again for a domestic dispute--is "so hard," said Adams, who has worked as a cashier and in shipping and receiving. But "I can't hide it," she said. "I just open up and let them know, and I pray to God I get the position."
Plenty of applicants with long work histories also showed up, some carrying folders stuffed with resumes. Arthuray Jackson, 44, lost his three-year job as a floor supervisor at eToys to the tech downturn. A father of 19, Jackson has child support to consider and came seeking a break.
Others, like 16-year-old Lonnie Brown, were looking for first-time opportunities. August's teenage unemployment rate hit 16.1%, representing the biggest increase over July for any group and far exceeding averages for the year's first and second quarters, Department of Labor statistics show.
Lonnie heard two girls talking about the job fair on the bus Friday. She came down with her father, a Torrance city employee; her little brother; and her mother, who carried a Bible and is hoping to supplement her part-time job at Pic 'N' Save across the street.
"I've worked for my grandma, and right now I'm really dedicated to finding a job," said Brown, who attends King/Drew Medical Magnet High School and has applied at malls across Los Angeles.
The job fair was coordinated with a "back-to-school" rally at nearby Chesterfield Square Park, where an uptick in violent crime earlier this summer prompted residents, local churches and politicians to organize weekly marches to reclaim the streets.
Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks attended the gathering, announcing a recent drop in crime that he attributed to the activism. Building on the theme of job opportunities, he also pitched his own department, which is recruiting for 1,500 sworn and civilian positions.
Ridley-Thomas, who attended both events, said that Home Depot and Food4Less have already found their Chesterfield Square stores exceeding sales expectations and that calmer streets will help attract other retailers.
"When you have a decrease in crime and an increase in employment opportunities, it has to be seen as a neighborhood on the rebound," he said.