A 2nd Act: Miracles From the Street

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Posted By on March 5, 2020

A saint, a statue and a mission

            Brent Downs knew the Bible stories from his Southern Baptist upbringing. He knew that Joseph was the father of Jesus and that the Bible paints him as a man who was not afraid of hard work. But it took several decades before Brent’s life would also teach him that Joseph was the patron saint of workers. That journey put Brent in the perfect place, at the ideal time.

            A successful Atlanta businessman with a solid education and a good family background, Downs left the business world at 33. Three years later, he was homeless, with a severe substance abuse problem. He woke up one morning and found himself in a dumpster, zipped up in a body bag. “I was just grateful it wasn’t garbage day,” Downs said with a wry chuckle. It’s that chuckle, and the sparkle in his eyes, that everyone loves.

            After his homeless wanderings brought him to Phoenix, Downs ended up in a transitional living space. Looking around him, he realized that a place to live was only the first step off the streets. Having employment was the real way out. His business background gave him an edge and ultimately landed him at St. Joseph the Worker, a 30-year-old Valley nonprofit.

            “Homelessness is not a state of life; it’s an experience. No one chooses to be homeless,” Downs said. “I look our clients in the eyes and see myself. I can honestly tell them, ‘I know from experience, the hardest thing is trying to get out.’ And it’s my great honor to make that happen. Last year, we helped 3,681 homeless individuals go to work.”

            There are plenty of jobs available — 50,000 of them today in Maricopa County. But having the necessary tools to take and keep a job is the challenge. That’s what SJW does; it’s the only thing they do, and they do it well.

            “Living on the street makes you invisible,” Downs said. “You lose your dignity. We restore that, and employers get it. We help our clients with their job searches and their résumés. We prep them with the 10 most-often-asked employment questions, focusing on the hardest one: employment gaps. We work with clothing nonprofits (Tailor Made for men and Dress for Success for women) so our clients have appropriate clothing for their interviews and their jobs.”

            Safety boots for construction, non-slip shoes for waiters and bussers, the cost of pre-employment testing, and transportation to interviews and jobs are just a few of the hard costs covered by SJW’s fundraisers and donors. Plus, they’ve just opened their first Mobile Success Unit. After a 39-foot RV was gutted, the living room became a computer lab for clients to look for work. The dining room became the employment desk, and the bedroom is now a clothing closet. Once they’re ready, SJW clients meet prospective employers at a job fair, where 96 partners discuss their job openings.

            Every time someone lands a job, they get to ring the bell in the SJW office. Downs gives them a hug, a McDonald’s gift card — SJW provides lunches until clients get paid — and his business card that includes his cell phone number. That has resulted in some amazing calls.

            “Five years ago, a client got a job, rang the bell, and I gave him the gift card and my business card,” Downs said. “I get a call from him at 6:30 a.m. a few days later. He tells me he doesn’t feel like going to work that day. I tell him to call me when he gets there. I want him to meet a friend who was also homeless. My buddy drives a McLaren, the car with wings for doors. He tells the guy about his own first post-homeless job.

            “Our client got the message. He’s now the vice president of logistics for a large local company. He called me a while back to tell me, while he could afford his own car with wings, he needs an SUV. He and his wife just found out they’re expecting twins,” Downs said.

            As with any business, Downs has experienced tough stretches while at SJW. He had left another nonprofit job to take over the executive director position at SJW. The organization was struggling financially, and he wondered how wise that decision had been. Downs asked God the purpose of sending him to a job with an agency that might have to close its doors.

            “And then the phone rang,” Downs said. “The woman on the other end said, ‘You don’t know me, and I just heard of you. We were trying to sell a house we owned in Desert Mountain but hadn’t had a single offer. I learned about the custom of burying a statue of St. Joseph in my yard and praying for a sale.’

            “She told me they sold that house for full price, and were giving St. Joseph the Worker all the money. That was my God moment. He listened, and we’ve continued to keep putting people to work ever since,” Downs said.

            To learn more, go to sjwjobs.org.

Judy Pearson

About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a journalist, published author, and the founder of A2ndAct.org. Her organization supports and celebrates women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the greater good in their 2nd Acts. Her passion is finding those who have have healed themselves by helping others.