Question: What made you switch careers and go from being an investment banker, making $1 million a year, to becoming a homeless advocate?
Answer: What happened is in 1994, my brother, who was my closest friend in the world, passed away in my arms. He got really sick and died within three weeks. He went from perfectly healthy to dying at the age of 40 from heart disease. While the doctors were working on stopping the symptoms, it got worse and worse and he died in 23 days. I don't even pretend to claim that I would get over it.
Q: Your brother's death prompted you to radically change your life?
A: That, and a year and a half later I got melanoma. It made me think that "later" might not happen. Suddenly time felt short to me.
Q: How did you find Chrysalis?
A: I wanted to find a spot in the community where I thought I would fit best. The unique thing about Chrysalis is that we help people who are very long-term unemployed, often 15 years to 25 years out of work. Eighty-five percent have a history of substance abuse and 85 percent have been in jail, most of them felons. We run two businesses to give people transitional employment in the middle of it. So, for those people who really are the hardest to employ, we hire them for six months under private contract, mostly doing street cleaning and parking lot cleaning, and then they go find their own job. We have a 93 percent success rate.
Q: Is there a clash between homeless organizations downtown and developers who are selling high-priced condos and apartments?
A: I'd rather see a neighborhood that has a mix of rich and poor, rather than only poor. It can only be good for the neighborhood. But, of course, public safety is everyone's issue, both for the homeless and for new tenants. I'm trying to encourage non-profits to embrace the development and partner with developers to become part of the solution. Many of them, like Tom Gilmore, are leading the charge in trying to change things downtown. I think it is unique in that the new development means there's more of a co-existence as opposed to gentrification, meaning, the developers are converting industrial buildings, not low-income housing. The fact is, the homeless can't move anywhere else. There are 4,000 to 5,000 SRO apartment and hotel units downtown. They aren't going anywhere.
Q: Describe the process of how you get someone a job when they're homeless.
A: The people we see are living in hotels, in shelters, in rehab, in transitional housing, or on somebody's couch or in a car. In Santa Monica, we have a lot of clients living in cars. We have only two rules here. The first is, you have to be sober, but we don't test. But because everybody has to find their own job, and it's an 11- to 15-week process, those who are using (drugs) walk out on their own. The second rule is they cannot be living on the streets because you can't get a night's sleep. To go to work, you need a night's sleep, a place to hang your clothes and a place to take a shower.
Q: Tell me how Chrysalis works when it gets a contract with a real estate developer?
A: Westfield Group and Macerich Co. have been hiring us to clean parking lots at the malls. Those businesses that contract out low-skilled work have the ability to work with Chrysalis and turn one job into three transitional jobs a year. You take one guy who's a maintenance guy who's been sweeping the parking lot for five years, and we will help him get a job with benefits. Then we take that one job and turn it over three times a year, so by the end of five years, 15 people will have transitioned out of homelessness on that one job.
Q: How hard is it to get contracts?
A: We have found that real estate developers are attuned to the fact that if they participate in making the community better and helping government do its job, they gain favor in government's eyes. Typically our contracts have been with business improvement districts and chambers of commerce.
Q: What kind of shape was Chrysalis in when you found it?
A: It was a highly effective organization dancing on the head of a financial pin. We're not that way anymore. Part of it is that we are over 90 percent privately funded and a typical homeless agency is 85 percent government funded. It really changes the dynamic to have to raise that much money for a client base that has no affinity group. Chrysalis had already been here for 15 years. It was started by a young Jesuit volunteer, who came to downtown Los Angeles to hand out sandwiches and decided that these folks didn't need sandwiches, they needed jobs. He's now an investment banker. True story.
Q: Is there a role for business people in non-profit work?
A: There's an enormous need for people with business skills. When I walked in here, we didn't have a cash flow statement. Plus, there's a need for people who can work with a community where the donors and partners are business people, who think and act and hear in a certain language.
Q: What's the hardest part of your job?
A: I would say that my easiest day on this job is twice as hard as my hardest day on Wall Street. There are very few people with money who relate to our clients, so we are really charity. We're not your alumni association, we're not your kid's private school, we're not the disease someone in your family has or the hospital you're looking to go into. We're 45-year-old unemployed, ex-felon drug addicts. None of our graduates grow up and write us $100,000 checks.
Q: So, not exactly conducive to the spending habits of the wealthy?
A: When you look at the giving patterns of very wealthy people, we fall into the bucket of charities that is the bottom 10 percent. To move out of that pot is almost impossible, and that's just the financial part of it. My budget is a break-even budget. I have a $7.5 million budget. I have no option of doing $7.3 million because I have a cash flow issue. I have a $100,000-a-week payroll that I have to meet and I'm making it from charity.
Q: What about the business side?
A: Our clients, our customers, pay us $4 million a year to clean; that means we have to have the lowest price with the highest-quality service. So trying to run that business is remarkably challenging.
Q: Chrysalis just moved into a new building in Santa Monica and has expanded into Pacoima. What is behind the expansion?
A: In the last five years, we've opened a Pacoima office, a business center in downtown Los Angeles, and we bought a building in Santa Monica, where we've doubled our space. Pacoima has a 35 percent unemployment rate among the male population, and the question was whether teaching people how to get a job could be applied to the Latino community.
Q: How do you think the city and county of L.A: are doing on the homeless issue?
A: The city of New York spent $672 million on homelessness last year; the city of L.A: spent $41 million. We have 91,000 homeless and they have 48,000.
Q: Finally, what part of your job makes you the happiest?
A: There's no happier place for me than standing on the street in front of Chrysalis, which is why I came down here. I didn't come here to make a career or build an empire or prove anything to anybody. I came here to help a few people. We have turned down many growth opportunities because I thought it would risk the franchise and affect sustainability. I need to make sure that I can fulfill our commitment to each community before expanding.
* ADLAI WERTMAN
Born: 1959; Queens, New York
Education: B.A., economics, State University of New York at Stonybrook; MBA, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business
Career Turning Point: Giving up his job as an investment banker and joining Chrysalis
Most Admired Person: His late brother, Elon Wertman; David Ben-Gurion; Abe Lincoln
Personal: Married with three young children
Hobbies: Meditation, studying the Torah and Talmud
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