Frank Crist remembers how shocked he was when he tried to go back to work. Despite his efforts to find a job and a place to live, his criminal background made achieving both difficult.
“I remember I needed to get out of the shelter, and I needed money to pay for a place to live,” Crist said. “I looked for about a year, but my history made it really hard.”
About six years ago, Crist, 58, was temporarily living at Presbyterian Night Shelter, located near downtown Fort Worth, when he was presented with the opportunity to work at UpSpire, a social enterprise that employs those experiencing homelessness and barriers to employment.
“Our goal is to put people to work,” UpSpire CEO Toby Owen said. “We focus on the homeless community with barriers to employment. Most of our employees have a criminal history.”
Founded in 2016, UpSpire began seeking out potential employees at the night shelter. Crist became the company’s third employee that year and has been with UpSpire since.
When he started, Crist was one of two litter and grounds employees tasked with cleaning up East Lancaster Avenue. Now, Crist is one of over 100 UpSpire employees and a part of four litter and grounds teams that clean up sites all over the city.
With the money from his job, he was able to purchase his own place after about a year and moved out of the shelter.
UpSpire’s city-wide growth was recently punctuated with the expansion of a litter abatement contract with the city of Fort Worth. The contract allows UpSpire to hire seven more litter pickup crews – an increase from three to 10 crews – and add about 30 new jobs. The new crews are expected to begin their work this month.
The contract is renewable for up to five years, including this year, and the contract amount will not exceed $2.67 million per year, Ham said. The company’s goal is to have all 10 crews hired, trained and operating by April.
Before UpSpire started, 94 miles of trash on average was picked per month compared with UpSpire’s current average of 342 miles of trash per month.
As UpSpire continues to bring on teams, the hope is to eventually have a crew for each City Council district and crews that clean up waterways and parks, Ham said.
The litter and grounds team is only one of four business models that UpSpire offers. The company also provides landscaping, commercial janitorial services and staffing.
“Our largest contract under staffing is actually with Waste Management – all the guys on the back of the trash trucks are ours,” Ham said.
Looking beyond appearances
Potential employees are guests at the Presbyterian Night Shelter, which is considered a low-barrier shelter, Owen said. This means anyone who needs help can stay at the shelter, so it serves all kinds of people.
When people are experiencing homelessness, their grooming and personal hygiene are no longer a priority, Owen said. UpSpire leadership doesn’t consider physical appearance when conducting job interviews.
“We just don’t pay attention to how they are dressed or how clean their clothes are,” Owen said. “It’s not something we consider a negative or a positive – it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is.”
Interviews are conducted Monday through Thursday at 9 a.m. Most potential employees hear about UpSpire through word of mouth, so consistent interview times are important, Owen said. Individuals can also send UpSpire inquiries about programs or jobs via email.
The hiring process consists of a few rounds of interviews, a drug screening and review of applicants’ criminal history
“So we’ve made the interview process as easy as possible. But we put things in place to get people that are really wanting to be employed because if you want to work, you’ve got to show up and do what you need to do to get hired,” Owen said.
UpSpire works to put aside past criminal history, to a certain extent. Sex offenders and those with serious, violent felonies cannot be hired, Owen said. People with certain convictions, such as a past theft record, cannot be hired for janitorial services.
“We also take people’s mental health into consideration,” Owen said, nodding to past chemical dependencies or addiction history. “Mental health really impacts the homeless population – it is a part of who this person is, but we have to look to see if we can hire them as an employee.”
Employees work full-time hours, receive health, life, dental and vision insurance, paid time off, a 401(k) plan, free transportation to and from work, liability and workers’ compensation insurance and HR support.
UpSpire is a regular service company that contracts with customers to pay employees. The company competes as any other business would in the service industry.
The difference, Ham said, is that UpSpire’s mission is equally as important as the profit. All profits provide operational support for the Presbyterian Night Shelter.
Gary Alexander, 62, found UpSpire through a case manager at the shelter. During a Nov. 10 interview, Alexander had been with UpSpire for three weeks working on the same litter and grounds team as Crist. Alexander loves the everyday routine and feeling of normalcy.
“I needed the work. I needed something to do,” Alexander said. “I’ve lived in Fort Worth for 40-plus years and I hadn’t heard about UpSpire until the shelter.”
As a litter and grounds employee, Alexander wakes up early every morning to get to the park by 7:30 a.m. to start removing trash.
“It’s pretty simple, I like the routine and the people, and it’s drama-free,” Alexander said. “I really like working with Frank, he’s great.”
After a long day’s work, he looks forward to heading to his home to sit down and watch the Dallas Cowboys or a movie.
“UpSpire is a really good company,” Alexander said. “They’re great at helping people down on their luck.”
Izzy Acheson is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.