The Labor Pool: Helping People with Employment

by Connie Davis

“We’re looking for a hand up, not a handout,” says Ernest Marshall firmly, holding out his hand to shake mine. “We’ve got over 800 people on file here, 400 with resumes, some with bachelor and master’s degree. We’ve got carpenters, electricians, gardeners—you name it! If you’ve got a job that needs doing, we’ve got someone who can do it. All we’re asking for is a chance, an opportunity to become taxpayers again. We’re selling self-esteem and pride here".

Welcome to the Labor Pool at 4311 Lorain Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side. A former two-lane bowling alley now serves as office, meeting place, and drop-in center for the organization, which was started by an eclectic group of strong characters whose belief in each other blossomed during the march to Columbus in 1991. Forty-seven Clevelanders walked from Public Square to the Ohio State Capitol to protest cutbacks in General Assistance payments. During the six days it took for them to get there, the group developed the kind of intense and loyal bonds it usually takes a lifetime to build.

Against all odds, they have survived the blows of a whimsical economy that declared them redundant and put them on the street. With nowhere to go, they turned to each other and the local churches as a source of strength. The result of this collaboration of spirit and grace is the Labor Pool, a cooperative employment agency staffed by a handful of devoted volunteers that specializes in finding jobs for the homeless.

Marion Roesch was losing hope before she met Ernest Marshall. Now the grandmother of three is resolutely updating her secretarial skills while running the office, answering the phone and searching through her files for the right candidate for prospective employers. “ I’ve learned so much just being around Ernest,” she says.

Marshall is a veteran of the Korean War. “I saw unspeakable things in those rice paddies. When I came home, I tried to regain my sanity, my health. I saved my money and worked hard. I certainly didn’t work towards the ultimate goal of being homeless.”

He is a beautician and hair stylist by trade, placing fourth in an international competition in 1972. He has also worked as a meat cutter, a construction worker, a typist and an insurance salesperson. Now he mans the phones, sometimes for 12 hours a day, matching potential employers with hopeful employees.

Marshall has little time or patience for government-run agencies of any kind. “The staff makes money off the homeless and we don’t see any of it,” he says, preferring to appeal directly to the business community. “We’re doing everything we can to make corporate Cleveland aware of us. Every time we’re mentioned, job offers increase.”

“We’ve also done basic marketing,” adds Bob Matthews, another member of the Labor Pool team who also participated in the walk to Columbus in 1991. “I had no skills in marketing, but I’ve learned how to go to places and put on presentations to show people what we’re all about here. We’ve approached various restaurants, factories and small businesses. For the most part, the response has been very successful.”

The Labor Pool, which is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 pm. Monday through Saturday, charges $5 per day, per employee, for the first 30 days. After that, the employer is free to deal directly with the employee without any further financial obligation to the Labor Pool. These nominal fees, along with grants from local churches and individual contributions, help to defray the rent and operating expenses.

Wolfgang Alexander is an independent contractor who hires all his crews through the labor pool. A recent job called for a basement to be turned into a sleek, upscale fitness center. The employer estimated that the work would take three weeks.

Alexander and his Labor Pool crew completed the assignment in just four days. Hey, Mayor White! Are you listening?

“I have a great feeling what money can’t buy when I get a chance to be involved in a person reconstructing his or her life,” Marshall says.

It’s a feeling you can share. If you’ve got a job—big or small, temporary or permanent—give the Labor Pool a call at 651-2313. They’ll find you a suitable candidate. Or just drop in at 4311 Lorain and meet Earnest, Bob and Marion in person. Give them a hand up. They’ve certainly earned it.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine and NEOCH, Issue 5, Cleveland Ohio February 1994