Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cathy And Lance

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A well groomed, 20-something Caucasian woman with glasses and long braided hair stood on the sidewalk holding a sign a cardboard sign with the words willing to work for less than minimum wage (not what's in the written on the sign in the picture, but that's what I remember). With her was a 20-something man wearing a black leather jacket and slicked back hair. Here in San Francisco it's a daily routine to see people holding signs asking for help, but rarely do I see someone offering to work and not asking for a handout. Even though I was curious, I walked past and continued on may way.

After passing the young couple, I'd walked almost a mile and had nearly reached home, but something was bothering me. Only seven month earlier, I had been struggling to find work and housing myself, so I had some empathy for their situation. While I didn't have a lot to offer them, I certainly had enough to make a meaningful impact on their current situation. I decided to follow my heart, turned around, and walked back towards where I had last seen them. On the way, I stopped by an ATM and withdrew $300.

They were still standing in the same spot. I walked up and introduced myself. Their told me their names, she was Cathy and he was Lance. There was a Subway just down the street, and I asked if they'd eaten dinner. They hadn't eaten at all that day. I offered to buy them sandwiches if they'd be willing to tell me their story, and they immediately agreed.

After we got the food, Lance did most of the storytelling. They were originally from Florida. Cathy had been laid off from her job as a page at a public library and Lance had been laid off from a construction job. Neither of them had had any luck in finding meaningful employment, and they quickly found themselves running out of cash. They'd traveled from Florida to Chicago to Las Vegas to San Francisco in search of opportunity, but they hadn't been successful in finding a way to generate income. Lance spoke of how they'd been squatting in an empty building in San Francisco for about 5 months, but that ended when they were discovered and chased off. They'd scraped together enough cash from collecting cans and turning then in at a recycling center for a couple of nights in a fleabag hotel, but they were going to be officially homeless at 10 a.m. the next morning.

Without thinking too hard about it, I offered to help them out with rent at the hotel. I explained that I had been struggling financially just a few months earlier, and that I felt compelled to help them because I hadn't found meaningful work when I was down and out. They looked at each other, thought about the offer for two seconds, and with a healthy amount of skepticism in their voices said they'd be willing to let me help them.

We walked three blocks to their hotel and approached the front desk. We inquired how much a room for one week would be. The price was $190. I whipped out some cash, paid, and immediately got thanks from Lance and Cathy. As I was standing there, my generosity didn't feel like enough, so I doubled down. Without knowing what they were qualified to do, I asked if they'd be interested in doing some work for me and they said yes. I pulled out another $100 and handed it to them. It was a Thursday night; I gave them my business card in case they needed to reach me, told them to take a few days off, and meet me in the lobby of their hotel bright and early on Monday at 9:00 a.m. What the heck was I getting myself into? I had no idea, but I decided I didn’t need to figure that out right away.

Monday rolled around and I arrived at their hotel at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Cathy and Lance weren’t in the lobby, which was really more of a hallway. I decided I’d wait until 9:15 and then leave. At 9:12, they stepped off the elevator. It was hard to be annoyed at their tardiness - the crappy elevator had gotten stuck and they’d been trapped for more than 10 minutes before it unstuck itself.

I took them out for breakfast to Mel’s Diner and started asking what they could do. Neither of them had a lucrative, in-demand skill, but it turned out they both had basic proficiency with computers. Since I had a need for some basic research and data entry, I offered to pay them a modest wage to look up information on the Internet and record that information in a spreadsheet. They were both eager to earn their keep, but there was a problem; they didn’t have a computer or an Internet connection.

Continuing the trend of not thinking too hard about it, I didn't want common sense talking me out of my mission to save the world, I offered to take them to Best Buy. We found a small netbook that they'd be able to use for data entry and I bought it for them outright, including a 2 year extended warranty. For Internet, we learned that the public library offered a free wi-fi connection.

After speaking with Cathy and Lance, we decided that Cathy was the most qualified to do Internet research. Over the next few weeks she and I worked together as she did various projects for me. She looked up information about random things that I asked her to research. Everything felt great. I'd hired a homeless person, trained her to do a job that I needed, she worked hard, and it was going pretty well. Well, it was going well until I realized I was running out of stuff for Cathy to do.

Have you ever had one of those days when you realized that someone is completely financially dependent on you and cutting the flow on money would mean they'd end up back on the street? I have. To make matters worse, Lance hadn't had much luck in finding work himself. Have you ever had one of those days when you realized that two people are completely financially dependent on you and cutting the flow of money would mean they'd end up back on the street? I have.

I could justify keeping Cathy on the payroll to do work that I actually needed, but I didn't need Internet research anymore. What was the next step? Just support the two of them? Make up some busy work for one of them to do? I found the answer by accident.

As Cathy and I were discussing something, I noticed that she'd been drawing for fun on some white paper. Knowing what unprofessional doodles look like, I could tell that she had some skill as an artist. How good she was didn't matter, as long as she could draw people. For a couple of years I'd been pondering having some sort of Captain Recruiter comic strip or personal artwork. I wasn't sure what kind of artwork Cathy could do for me, but I decided to find out.

Over the next month or so, Cathy and I experimented with a few different ideas, from newsletters to greeting cards. In the end, we figured out that a way to keep it simple would be to have Cathy draw pictures for my blog. The pictures could be fun and informal, and she'd be great at that. On July 31st, Cathy's first drawing appeared on the Captain Recruiter blog.

Cathy knew from the beginning that I wouldn't be able to work with her forever, at least not on a full time basis. Last week I finally got to the point where I could no longer afford to keep her on board full time. I worked out a deal with her where I’d pay her a retainer for work to be done in the future. I prepaid her for a large number of hours, and that was enough for her and Lance to pay for housing for a couple of months.

The same day I told Cathy I could no longer pay her for 40 hours of work a week, she got some good news. Cathy is legally blind and had just been approved for Social Security Disability Insurance. Even though the money is not much, it'll be enough for her and Lance to pay for housing and buy meager supplies. She'll also have access to food stamps, health coverage through Healthy San Francisco, and in time Lance should be able to find a stream of income, too.

I'm proud of the fact that I helped Cathy and Lance get back on their feet. I did it because I know firsthand what it’s like to slide from a normal life into the abyss. They deserve a fighting chance at a normal life and I took it upon myself to give them an opportunity. The only thing they want in life is dignity and a sustainable way to support themselves. Hopefully what I was able to do for them will be enough and I pray that they'll be okay.


  1. Mr. Pope, you are a good person and an inspiration to us all. Thank you.

  2. I randomly came across this blog looking for tips for recruiting. I am VERY new in the field, and am barely scratching the surface. A few weeks back, I encountered a similar situation where I saw a gentleman asking for work and not just wanting money. Unfortunately, I make a modest income and wasn't able to help him the way you were able to help these folks, but I did feel compelled to go back, and give him a business card to see if I could get him an entry-level position somewhere. When I did, he wasn't there anymore, and I regret not doing it immediately. Your story is inspiring to me as a new recruiter; we can help.

  3. Hi Micheal, your story is very touching and you are quite a generous positive thinker. If there were more people like you, the world would be a better place. =) Hope CR does so well that can continue helping those in need! -Mindy