Small Sums solves bigger problems

Updated: December 27, 2012 - 5:48 pm

For 22-year-old David Wilson, the smallest pieces of help put him quickly back to work and on a path with future career advancements. 

Formerly homeless and now employed as a security guard, Wilson is just one of hundreds of success stories emerging from the St. Paul-based non-profit organization Small Sums. While organizations like the Dorothy Day Center and the American Red Cross provide housing and ongoing social services, the smaller, more focused Small Sums identifies overlooked necessities that help skilled workers return to the workforce and move toward self-sufficiency.

Executive Director Katherine Olson has worked out of the Dignity Center in the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church since 2006 to remove the immediate barriers that prevent the homeless from accepting employment. Chefs, beauticians, welders and security guards must often own their own supplies in order to accept employment. Small Sums will purchase the items that are required to accept a job.

Clients are never handed cash; rather, Small Sums staff will accompany clients to stores and buy their supplies. Or they might help a client with something as basic as a bus pass.

“One of the biggest barriers to getting out of homelessness is finding transportation to work,” Olson said. Larger charities may give small support like this after two years of involvement with a client, but Olson asked, “What about the person who is employable now?”

Terre Thomas, client coordinator for Small Sums, explained that once a client has been accepted into the program, “we tell them to just say ‘yes’” when asked if they have the supplies for the job.

Partner agencies, such as People Serving People and The Salvation Army, will refer clients to Small Sums if they meet one main qualification. To be eligible, clients must be “homeless or precariously-housed,” Olson said.

“They’re staying on a couch, or they’re on the lottery system for a bed or mat,” she continued. “They’re people who don’t have a consistent bed.”

Both Olson and Thomas have been watching a new type of homelessness appear around the Twin Cities. 

“For some people it’s taken a long time for the economy crash to hit them,” Olson explained. “These people have skills and have the training, but once the are re-offered a job, they don’t have money for transportation or the required clothing and supplies.” 

Added Thomas, referring to their many clients who have lost their things in transition between storage units or homes: “For some reason their problems have snowballed and they don’t have friends or family to consistently help them put things back together, or keep things together.” 

Originally from Chicago, Wilson was going on six months homeless before he was referred to Small Sums.

“I used the Salvation Army, friends’ houses,” Wilson explained. “I was looking at employment.”

Eventually, Wilson was interviewed by State-Wide Protective Agency for a security guard position. 

“They gave me a list of things I needed,” Wilson said. “A uniform, police- or EMT-style pants, flashlight — and more pieces to excel.” 

Wilson accepted the job and Small Sums purchased the supplies he needed. Initially, he was assigned to graveyard shifts that had him working unarmed through the night. After three months of employment, Wilson explored opportunities to one day expand into cash logistics or work for the Department of Corrections. 

To be qualified for these positions, Wilson would need to obtain a permit to carry a weapon, which is required by Minnesota state law. Within his line of work, a pay raise and normal day hours follow holders of such a permit. 

“[Small Sums] paid for my ID fee,” Wilson explained. “With that, I can get more hours and in more locations.”

Without licensure, his aspirations may have remained a dream.

Often times, Thomas added, all a client needs is the first or second paycheck to get them on their feet again. Wilson now has stable housing and a plan for future work. 

“They’re homeless, not helpless,” Olson added. 

Since their founding, Small Sums has helped 742 homeless workers move toward self-sufficiency. In 2011 alone, the organization served 416 homeless workers. And they project those numbers to grow. 

“We expect great growth in the future,” Thomas said. “There are more jobs, people are hiring and the economy is getting better. There are more and more people at that precipice wondering if they can accept a job with just a little help.”

Last year, $89,000 was donated to fund their clients’ equipment needs. It’s nearly all spent and, with their involvement and clientele growing, they’re hoping to bring in more donations before the end of the year.

“The only thing that stops us from helping people is lack of funds,” Olson said.

Small Sums’ board of directors covers all operating expenses, allowing 100 percent of donations to go directly toward purchasing the supplies clients need. 

The individuals that come in and out of Small Sums’ service arrive with unique stories and varying needs, but Olson has heard one consistent reply from clients: “We’ll hear it from almost everyone: ‘Thank you — you’ve changed my life.’”