Member Profile: Solutions SF, San Francisco, California

Year business began: 2007
Enterprise sponsor: Community Housing Partnership
Jobseekers employed last year: 130

Solutions SF provides lobby staffing services to 40 supportive and affordable housing properties in San Francisco, including properties owned and managed by its parent organization Community Housing Partnership (CHP). Founded in 1990, CHP manages some 900 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals and families. Solutions SF was launched in 2007 with assistance from REDF as a transitional employment strategy for CHP’s residents who are able to work.

We spoke with Laurie Bernstein, CHP’s Director of Social Enterprises, to learn more about their alternative staffing venture.

How did Community Housing Partnership get into the lobby staffing business?
CHP’s mission is to help people secure housing and become self-sufficient. We believe in “housing first,” but a roof over one’s head is not enough on its own to avoid a return to the streets. As part of our range of supports, we began a lobby service training program as a way to engage people socially and stimulate their minds through learning something new. Over time, a subset of participants emerged who were eager to work. So, we started Solutions SF as a way to provide work experience for people who completed the training. With the success of the enterprise, we are now shifting the training to be more employment-focused from the start.

What is the training process for participants and how do you recruit and qualify candidates?
Our Lobby Services Training Program is an eight-week program that mixes classroom and on-the-job training. Historically, we’ve begun five cohorts every year. Currently, we’re changing the training to be delivered in modules that people can complete in three to six weeks, to better align with our business needs.

Lobby staffing duties mainly involve guest screening and “observe and report” security. Our training curriculum includes workplace practices and expectations, crisis management, de-escalation techniques, and how to provide excellent customer service. In recruiting candidates for our training, the main things we look for are the ability to communicate clearly and most importantly, an individual’s motivation to work. In our experience, being able to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to anything – personal, social or otherwise – in the past three to four months is a good indicator of a person’s motivation.

We prefer to employ people who complete our in-house training but as the business has grown, we’ve had to go outside this pool to recruit additional candidates. We do this through referrals from other employment and homeless service organizations such as Goodwill of San Francisco, Hamilton Family Center and Episcopal Community Services.

On average, how long are people employed by Solutions SF?
We advertise the program as 18 months but in reality, 80% of our workers convert to employment with customers after eight to 12 months.

What types of support services have you found to be most critical to your workers’ success?
We have a full-time Retention Counselor and recently launched a new retention program, Solutions to Success, that we developed during the past year based on all the reasons people leave or have to be let go. Workers are offered a series of two-hour “Employee Support Modules” on various topics that we schedule on a rotating basis. The classes are voluntary with cash incentives to attend.

Eight “Perform” modules focus on adapting to working regularly. Four “Design” modules focus on preparing for permanent employment, and two “Change” modules focus on successful transition. The classes have been very popular and we’re finding that they create a place for people to network with each other, so over time they’re building informal peer networks besides the skills they’re learning.

We also offer two full-day workshops, on identifying Inner Strengths and Advanced Financial Literacy. Finally, through community partners we can refer our employees to workshops about using LinkedIn for future job search and networking, and reentry issues including employment rights, record expungement and interviewing with a background.

Our employees are also eligible to earn recognition and rewards for achieving 10 milestones during their employment with us and after their transition to external employment. The program is funded through a private foundation grant for the first year and we will support it through earned income thereafter.

What marketing methods or messages have you found to be most effective in attracting new customers?
Because we’re a niche staffing supplier, most of our new business has been word-of-mouth. We’ve had the opposite challenge, sometimes attracting more business than we can handle, so marketing has not been a priority. As we move to scale the business, that will change.

Please tell us about your plans to grow and other goals for the future.
We’re laying the foundation to scale up, through redesigning the training pathway to have a more robust employee pool and investing in staffing software. We currently operate in San Francisco only and are looking at East Bay, including Oakland, as a possible market for expansion. Longer-term, once we’ve maxed out the lobby staffing market, we’d like to add a second business line.

On the worker support side, our goal is to involve alumni in our training and retention program, and add a formal mentoring component.

What are the biggest challenges of operating Solutions SF?
Our main challenge is finding people who are ready to work, people who have started to take steps to change their lives and are ready to do the hard work needed to succeed in the workplace. And unfortunately, we lose some of our workers due to relapse into addiction.

As a manager, what do you wish you had more time for?
I miss interacting with our employees. As the enterprise has grown, I’m further removed from hands-on involvement with them.

What about Solutions SF makes you most proud?
I’m 100% convinced that the impact we’re having is real. I’ve seen the changes that work can bring to people’s lives and the doors that employment opens to them. The opportunity to earn a wage leads people to make a lot of other good choices, and it’s cool to be part of that!

Please, briefly share a success story about one of your workers.
We recently honored a former worker Tammie. As a teen and young adult, Tammie’s on and off drug use had led to loss of custody of her child, some jail time, and then five years of homelessness. In 2010, she committed to changing her life and successfully completed a drug counseling program. She was able to find housing and enrolled in our Lobby Service training, showing up first and sitting in front every day. We hired her as an on-call desk clerk and her work ethic did not go unnoticed. Tammie earned so many recognition badges that her co-workers began calling her “General Underwood.” This winter she began working for Caritas Management as a full-time front desk clerk with benefits. She is able to support her youngest daughter in college, save for the future, and has made her children and grandchildren proud. Tammie is a great example of the real impact employment has made for our workers.

What advice would you offer to someone considering staffing as an enterprise strategy in their community?
My advice is to look for niche markets to exploit. Lobby staffing has been a good fit with our workers’ skill set and there’s been very little competition. Front desk staffing is also the first step on a property management career ladder and to hospitality industry opportunities as well.

To learn more, visit Solutions SF on the web. For more details about their new Solutions to Success retention program, or to obtain a copy of the workbook, please contact Laurie at

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